Philadelphia - After years of bitter court fights, The Barnes Foundation opened its $150 million modernist art palace -- forcibly transplanted by court order from its old mansion in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania. Art collectors of ArtKabinett social network were in attendance.
Before we proceed to the particulars of the gala, here is a little background concerning this quirky yet monumental collection...
In 1922 the medical doctor, chemist, and passionate collector Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951) created an art foundation funded from his invention and marketing of the gonorrhea drug Argyrol.
His stated purpose of the Barnes Foundation was to enhance appreciation of art, philosophy and horticulture.
He commissioned Paul Philippe Cret to design a refined, two-story Italianate villa adorned with sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz on a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pennsylvania, 5 miles from Center City.
Its intimate suite of 24 interconnected galleries housed Barnes’s unmatched, multibillion dollar collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art.
Among the hundreds of works were 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos.
Unfortunately, financial bungling along with some very penurious codicils of Dr Barnes' last will and testament made it difficult to keep the works in their original home -- even though the document strictly forbade any of the works to be moved -- not even by an inch -- or ever sold.
Rather than re-furbish the Merion residence, some wealthy Philadelphia patrons persuaded their local politicians and court system to forcibly move the artworks into a new facility on Philly's museum mile -- claiming it would be more "accessible".
This new location is now home to the multibillion-dollar art collection.
Opening night -- as they always are-- was a star-studded event as the Barnes Foundation showed off its new 93,000-square-foot facility.
The building, designed by Tod Williams and Billy Tsien, glowed in the setting sun as 875 invitees descended.
Luminaries included Ellsworth Kelly, caught posing in front of his 40-foot-tall sculpture in the garden entryway. Also in attendance were most of the Sotheby’s contemporary art contingent, including North and South American chair Lisa Dennison and executive vice president Anthony Grant.
Master of ceremonies Brian Williams of NBC News kept the evening moving, even when technical issues got in the way.
The crowd was also entertained by a short five-song set from Norah Jones and a rousing gospel moment by a local choir. But it was more of a see-and-be-seen crowd, as all of Philadelphia and beyond showed up to celebrate the Barnes’ new home.
Many collectors had the good fortune of visiting the original Dr Barnes home in Merion before it closed. Entering the identically replicated rooms in the new space, offers an odd feeling of deja vu.
A striking difference is the new space’s lighting, designed by Paul Marantz. The use of diffused light bouncing off of silver leaf ceilings gives the work a bold feel. You view the postimpressionist works in brazen luminosity.
There remains the controversy of moving the institution from the Barnes estate to downtown Philadelphia, which was amplified by protestors outside the event.
One local guest reported that the protestors were from Merion, which he found humorous given how much the Barnes neighbors sought to limit access and activity at the original site.
There are numerous spaces indoors and out that provide the opportunity for reflection, which is almost a required activity after interacting with the treasure trove of $25 billion in art.
The new space includes an auditorium, a gift shop (which includes African masks for purchase), a library and a sitting area that feels like a relaxing living room.
The latter area was reminiscent of the new wing created by Renzo Piano for the Gardner Museum in Boston. There is also a large gallery for temporary exhibitions that opens with an informative presentation of Dr Barnes’ correspondence about the collection.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the move, the overall result hopes to present the works in homage to Dr Barnes’ installation. The new museum has become an instant cultural icon for Philadelphia.
However, for many art enthusiasts, it represents a great and preventable cultural tragedy of our era. They realize that taxpayers footed one third of the bill for another bloated institution now located in downtown Philadelphia.
The city could have simply used the funds to retrofit the historic old residence, and enable the musty presence of Dr Barnes to continue to inspire new generations of aficionados. Perhaps his home did not need state-of-the-art halogen bulbs to enlighten the viewer.