Philly's New Art Gallery Designed To Spark Controversy

The design for the new Barnes art gallery in downtown Philadelphia was unveiled this week. The Philadelphia Inquirer liked it; The New York Times hated it. Either way, it raises an interesting question: What's the relationship between a building and its contents — specifically an art museum and the artworks within?

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The long-awaited plans for the Barnes Foundation controversial new art gallery in Philadelphia - Philadelphia, forgive me - were unveiled to the public this week. Like just about everything else associated with this idiosyncratic multibillion dollar collection of masterpieces, they were met with immediate and fierce debate.

Joel Rose reports.

Mr. JOEL ROSE: Albert Barnes bought 12 quiet leafy acres outside Philadelphia for the school and gallery that would house his growing collection of Modernist and Post-Impressionist art back in 1922. Painter Henri Matisse, who visited more than once, called it, quote, "The only sane place to see art in America."

Ms. BILLIE TSIEN (Architect): It's not the normal museum. It's not hung in the normal way.

Mr. ROSE: Billie Tsien is one of the architects charged with preserving that experience at a new, bigger building in downtown Philadelphia.

Ms. TSIEN: It's a museum that's about a very personal experience with a very particular idea of art.

Mr. ROSE: There's never been anything ordinary about the Barnes Foundation. The collection of paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and dozens of others is almost unrivaled, so is the level of passionate argument the foundation provokes.

Despite a collection valued at upwards of $20 billion, the Barnes was on the verge of bankruptcy. The judge gave permission to move the collection. Three wealthy foundations and the state of Pennsylvania helped bankroll the move to a new $200 million building in downtown Philadelphia, but only after Barnes officials promised to precisely replicate the original floor plan and the unusual way Dr. Barnes hung his paintings.

Ms. INGA SAFFRON (Inquirer Architecture Critic): I think it was mission impossible.

Mr. ROSE: Inga Saffron is the architecture critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Ms. SAFFRON: I think they've called out and honored the original building in a very sensitive way.

Mr. ROSE: The challenge was to recreate a sense of serenity on the 10-lane Ben Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia.

Ms. TSIEN: One of the things that we're trying to do is distill the essence.

Mr. ROSE: Architect Billie Tsien.

Ms. TSIEN: The sort of special things that occurred when you visited the original Barnes Collection. And one of those very special things is your path through the garden.

Mr. ROSE: In the new building, the visitor will walk past a reflecting pool and through a large glass atrium; only then will you come to the stone-clad building that holds the art. The gift shop, café and other trappings of the modern museum are housed in a separate structure.

Mr. NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF (Architecture Critic, New York Times): I found it almost just crazy what you have to go through to get into this museum.

Mr. ROSE: New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff doesn't fault the effort. If anything, he says, the architects are trying too hard.

Mr. OUROUSSOFF: The architects were really, really bending over backwards to try to create the sense of solitude and contemplation that you get at the Barnes now, which is in a very quiet suburban neighborhood.

Mr. ROSE: In his Times review, Ourussoff wrote that the building is quote, "the strongest argument yet for why the Barnes should not be moved." He thinks the design projects a sense of guilt over betraying the vision of Albert Barnes, who stipulated that the collection stay in Merion after his death.

But architect Todd Williams says he and his partner and wife, Billie Tsien, are simply trying to enhance the Barnes Collection without overshadowing it.

Mr. TODD WILLIAMS (Architect): It's hardly a sort of sense of guilt. I would say it's a sense of celebration.

Mr. ROSE: Still, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff thinks the new building is intended to be exactly the sort of tourist attraction the original was not.

Mr. OUROUSSOFF: There are certain kinds of museums and the Barnes is certainly one that allow you to escape that experience. They're kind of more isolated from the world around them. And so when you see an institution like that dismantled, it's kind of heartbreaking.

Mr. ROSE: Public officials in Philadelphia don't seem heartbroken. The city art commission voted unanimously to approve the new design this week. Construction could begin next month.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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