Atlantic Cities

After Years of Controversy, a Museum Urbanizes

After Years of Controversy, a Museum Urbanizes
Mark Byrnes

By the time the Barnes Museum moved its impressive art collection from a quiet neighborhood in the suburbs into Philadelphia last week, it was clear it had overstayed its welcome.

The stately complex (built in the 1920s) was difficult to get to, and open only two and a half days a week. And most nearby residents would suggest that was two and a half days too many. The Barnes museum brought in the kind of traffic and tour buses few neighborhoods would welcome.

No longer. After a lengthy and sometimes contentious process, the Barnes Museum has a new home in downtown Philadelphia.

The move was prompted, in a large part by finances. As the institution struggled to make money, it began to take actions that Barnes likely would not have agreed on, such as putting the collection on a tour through many of the world's most famous (and easily accessible) art museums in the early 1990s. In need of a more permanent financial solution, it was eventually agreed that the collection would move into a new, downtown location along Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

But that decision is not without its detractors. In his will, Barnes stipulated that his paintings could never be moved. A 2009 documentary Art of the Steal suggested that his will was illegally broken at the request of a wide cast of civic elites who would stand to benefit from a downtown-based Barnes. 

Images courtesy Tod Williams+Billie Tsien

Controversies aside, the collection has a new home in a contemporary structure designed by Tod Williams+Billie Tsien. While the exterior suggests a new way of experiencing the collection, much of the interior is laid out the same way. Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine visited the new museum and had the same, overwhelming visual experience visitors of the previous location would have seen:

"...the Barnes is not a collection so much as an unyielding optical labyrinth—a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art unto itself, that can change the way you think about what you see. It can also blind you. With no retinal breathing room, no psychic rests, no spaces of silence, you can find yourself rushing past masterpieces, overloaded by the optical onslaught."

The Merion location is currently closed but will reopen later this summer, primarily hosting its horticulture program and Arboretum. While the new location is open 6 days a week, reservations are still recommended

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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