Sparks are flying over plans to relocate a tiny but extraordinary art institute in a leafy suburb of Philadelphia, with critics warning the attempt at modernization will kill the collection’s soul.
At issue is the fate of the Barnes Foundation, which might be considered the world’s biggest small museum.
Certainly the Barnes packs an outsized punch. In a building of just 1,100m2, the collections include the world’s largest group of Renoirs, at 181, and, according to organizers, more Cezannes, with 69, than hang in the museums of Paris.
But the real beauty of the Barnes is not just the 1,000 paintings. It’s the quirky, even unique way they have been arranged within the building — an arrangement that fans say would be lost forever if the move to more spacious, up-to-date surroundings takes place.
Plans are to relocate the collection just 8km to a new space near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum. In theory the museum will close in July for preparations.
But in one of the most bruising legal battles anywhere in the art world, aficionados of the current location are doing anything they can to halt the project.
Already the fight has sparked a book, a scathing documentary, and coverage in some of the nation’s largest newspapers. A lawsuit fighting the move has lasted, with some breaks, nearly a decade.
Most recently, the judge overseeing the case, Stanley Ott, has ordered yet another round of arguments over whether to re-open the case — a full seven years after he’d ruled that the move could go ahead.
The battle is as complex as the riches-packed museum itself.
On one side, officials from the Barnes say the move is needed to ensure its financial survival. A new setting, they say, will allow a larger number of people to see the estimated US$25 billion collection. Just 450 visitors a day can be accommodated at present and they must make advance reservations to get in.
But opponents say the move will violate the vision of Albert C. Barnes, a pharmaceutical manufacturer who sold his company just before the Great Depression, then amassed his art collection at rock bottom prices.
He built the galleries, designed by French architect Paul Phillippe Cret, to house the paintings, and the way the paintings are hung is so unique, art enthusiasts say, that the foundation itself is a work of art.
“This was a gift by a man who was a total visionary art collector,” said Evelyn Yaari, from Friends of the Barnes Foundation. “If you move it downtown, it is not that gift.”
Certainly the Barnes is unlike any major museum in the world.
Henri Matisse, whose largest work, the mural The Dance II, is housed in the foundation, called it “the only sane place to see art in America.”
There are no labels next to the paintings. The pictures themselves are placed inches apart from each other in symmetrical patterns.
Whereas most museums would place all of the works of Impressionists in a single room in chronological order, there is no such order to the works of the Barnes. So European masters are hung next to the works of unnamed Chinese masters.
Albert Barnes intended it to serve as an educational institution, where young painters could practice their crafts by copying the works of other painters. Small objects — metal hinges, keyholes, spoons — hang everywhere, designed to give students a reference to use when copying the painting. Forks are placed upright next to a painting of trees.