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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Barnes Foundation opens the doors of its new gallery in downtown Philadelphia today. Its collection of paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and many more is now hanging in galleries designed to replicate those at the Barnes's old home in suburban Merion. The move comes after years of bitter debate over the future of this multi-billion dollar collection.

NPR's Joel Rose has been following the story the last decade, and visited the new Barnes to have a look.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: From the outside, you would never confuse the new Barnes with the old one. Where the original building was neo-classical and sober, the new Barnes is post-modern, all raw stone and glass. But inside, it's as if the old galleries have been copied and pasted into downtown Philadelphia.

BILLIE TSIEN: For people, they'll walk in and it will be the Merion that they think they remember.

ROSE: Architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams were careful to stick to the size of the original Barnes galleries.

TOD WILLIAMS: The salient dimensions are all there, so that everything is within, I don't know, an eighth of an inch or less. Those dimensions are all absolutely faithful.

ROSE: Williams and Tsien didn't really have a choice about that. Barnes Foundation officials promised a Pennsylvania judge they would preserve the dimensions of the original galleries. In return, he gave them permission to move the collection to a new $250 million building in Philadelphia. They also pledged to recreate the idiosyncratic ensembles of paintings, furniture and metal-work conceived and arranged by founder Albert Barnes in the first half of the 20th century. Even the burlap color of the walls looks the same. But that didn't stop the architects from making a few tweaks.

TSIEN: Everything in the galleries feels the same. Everything is different. Everything.

ROSE: Some of the changes are subtle: wood windows instead of metal, a lighter shade of oak for the moldings. The most dramatic difference is the lighting.

DEREK GILLMAN: These Renoirs are alive in a way they simply weren't before, just because of the blues and the greens really coming out...

ROSE: Barnes director Derek Gillman shows off a second-floor gallery in the new building. The architects were able to add natural sources of light in nearly every room. That brings out colors in the paintings you couldn't see before - and Gillman says that changes the relationship between paintings that have hung together for decades.

GILLMAN: The Cezanne and the Picasso were so dominant and powerful, that even in the poor light, they absolutely held the room. But now the Renoir's coming back and holding its place. And that's exactly what Albert Barnes intended.

ROSE: Well, what Albert Barnes really intended, say the Foundation's critics, was for these paintings to hang in the building he opened for them in 1925. Barnes was very clear that his institution was to be a school for art appreciation, not an ordinary museum. And he deliberately placed it six miles away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the art establishment he despised.

STU BYKOFSKY: Well, the guy was an eccentric, he was a crank. Even his friends thought he was a misanthrope. He's my kind of guy.

ROSE: Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky says the irascible Dr. Barnes would hate the move and the new building. To make his point, Bykofsky conducted a faux interview in the paper with Barnes, who's been dead for 60 years.

BYKOFSKY: I'm not sure I can repeat that language on National Public Radio, but he was shocked, annoyed, dismayed, angered. He was furious, because his will was broken.

ROSE: Technically it was not his will, but his trust indenture. Foundation officials testified at seemingly endless court hearings that the Barnes was going broke in Merion, and needed to move to a bigger gallery in order to survive. The machinations behind the move, which involved some of the biggest players in Pennsylvania politics and cultural life, were the subject of pointed 2009 documentary called "The Art of the Steal."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE ART OF THE STEAL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think an enormous conspiracy is at work, of moneyed interests to have their will, to have their way, to manipulate the treasury of the state of Pennsylvania, to manipulate the legal system of Pennsylvania...

ROSE: Barnes Foundation officials counter that the new facility, with classrooms, a lecture hall, and modern library, will help them better carry out Albert Barnes' core educational mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC SAW)

ROSE: Craftsmen put the finishing touches on a giant aluminum sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly that was commissioned for the garden outside the new Barnes. At the sculpture's dedication last month, Kelly said the move to Philadelphia will be good for the art inside.

ELLSWORTH KELLY: It means that millions of people can come see it. And I think it's going to be a draw.

ROSE: Tourism officials in Philadelphia are certainly hoping Kelly is right. So are Barnes Foundation officials. But they're also pledging to try to duplicate the intimate experience in Merion by limiting the number of viewers in each gallery at one time.

Architect Billie Tsien says at one point, she and her partner were considering a big sign to lure in visitors from the adjacent parkway.

TSIEN: You know, the designers, they designed a huge sign, said Barnes Foundation. But we said well, wait a minute: this is not a place that is a conventional museum. This is a place where people come to look at paintings in more a quiet way.

ROSE: Skeptics have been wondering for a decade now whether that experience can survive the short trip from Merion to Philadelphia. For better or worse, they won't have to wait long to find out.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

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