MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. One of the world's great art collections is spending its last few days in its long-time home. The Barnes Foundation's modernist and impressionist art is valued at some $25 billion, and it's about to move from the Philadelphia suburbs to a new downtown building next summer.
So this weekend, art lovers from around the country are paying their respects to the old gallery, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: Those who love the Barnes Foundation say it's more than an art collection, though it does include hundreds of paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and many more. For some, the place itself is a work of art.
Ms. LINDA ROBINSON (Docent, Barnes Foundation): As you go out further, you're going to see on the facade of this building...
ROSE: Docent Linda Robinson leads a tour of the gallery at its leafy campus in Lower Merion, just outside Philadelphia. She points up at a pair of cubist sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz that founder Albert Barnes commissioned from the artist etched in stone above the building's front door.
Ms. ROBINSON: So here is Barnes building this building in 1925 and having the insight, the instinct, to know that cubism is going to determine what happens to the art world in the 20th century. It's miraculous.
ROSE: But those Lipchitz sculptures are staying in Merion along with the rest of the building and 12 acres of gardens and arboretum while the art collection inside prepares to move about six miles to downtown Philadelphia.
Whether separating the art from the building is a good idea depends on whom you ask.
Mr. DEREK GILMAN (CEO, Barnes Foundation): I think it's actually an extraordinarily positive time for the Barnes.
ROSE: CEO Derek Gilman says it's a chance for the Barnes to move beyond the financial struggles of the past.
Mr. GILMAN: The mood of the institution for a long time has been about survival and whether survival was possible. And now there's a very, very clear and bright future ahead.
ROSE: For many years, the Barnes Foundation didn't need to worry about survival. Founder Albert Barnes made a fortune in pharmaceuticals. He spent his money collecting art and building a gallery to house it. Barnes was clear that his foundation would not be an ordinary museum but a school for art appreciation, as he said in an address on radio station WCAU in 1942.
Mr. ALBERT BARNES (Founder, Barnes Foundation): The classes are conducted every day, are filled to capacity, and there is a waiting list of several hundred desirable applicants. In short, the foundation is an educational institution with a well-defined purpose and a very full program. And that is why it cannot be a public gallery.
ROSE: Before Barnes was killed in a car crash in 1951, he said the foundation should stay exactly as he left it. But in the early 2000s, foundation officials said they were going broke.
They insisted that years of legal battles with the neighborhood over how many visitors the foundation could accommodate left its endowment depleted. So they went to court to break Barnes's trust indenture and move the collection to a new building in Philadelphia, to the dismay of longtime students like Carryl Platt.
Ms. CARRYL PLATT (Student, Barnes Foundation): This whole situation is tragic. It'll be a complete forgery. It will not be as it was intended to be seen. This was never intended to be a museum.
ROSE: Barnes officials insist the new building in Philadelphia will help them carry out the foundation's educational mission. They've promised to replicate the way Barnes laid out the galleries and the way he hung masterpieces alongside everyday objects. Docent and teacher Linda Robinson says they'll also have modern lighting and teaching facilities that she contends are badly needed.
Ms. ROBINSON: They now are going to equip a classroom on each floor so that we can be in the classroom, discuss, take notes, and then I can say: Come on, let's go out to Room 8 and look at the piece directly.
ROSE: The galleries at the Barnes have been packed lately with art lovers coming for a last look at the collection in Marion.
Unidentified Woman #1: That Picasso would not have done, (unintelligible) without...
Unidentified Woman #2: Without having seen all of Cezanne...
ROSE: It's possible to find a range of feelings about the move here even among people who come to see the galleries together.
Mr. MICHAEL KORWIN: I hate to see it move. I think it's just a beautiful setting, just a whole comprehensive package.
ROSE: Michael Korwin drove up from Washington with his friend, Steve Fesler, who used to live a few miles away.
Mr. STEVE FESLER: I lived in Haverford in the '70s, and I had no clue it was here. So I'm glad it's moving because I think a lot of people have no clue it's here.
ROSE: Many of the people I met in the galleries were visiting the Barnes for the first time, drawn by the controversy over the move or the recent documentary film about it, "The Art of the Steal." But some longtime Barnes lovers are so distraught they can't even bring themselves to go inside.
Mr. NICK TINARI: It's like a patient who you know is dying. Like, it's almost like, well you know what? I'm going to feel better when it's completely over with, I think so.
ROSE: Nick Tinari is a former student at the Barnes who has done as much as anyone to fight the move.
Mr. TINARI: I think about those Buddhas in Afghanistan, you know, when I think about this. I think about the loss of a species. Maybe it sounds like too much, but that's how I feel about this. It's like mountaintop removal. You can't put the mountain back once you do it.
ROSE: Opponents of the move to Philadelphia may have one last chance to stop it. The Pennsylvania judge who gave permission for the move back in 2004 will hold a hearing on the latest legal appeal next month. Barnes Foundation officials are moving forward with plans to open the new gallery in the spring.
Joel Rose, NPR News.