The Barnes Foundation Debuts

© 2012 The Barnes Foundation

The story behind the foundation’s new building in Philadelphia.

With the opening of the new Barnes Foundation building on May 19, one of the art world’s great controversies will finally find some resolution. The relocation of the late Albert C. Barnes’s collection—including hundreds of important Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos and Renoirs—from its original home, in the Philadelphia suburbs, to a new space, on the city’s Museum Row, had been fiercely contested over the years, with lawsuit after lawsuit claiming that the move went against the terms of Barnes’s deed of trust.

A local chemist who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, Barnes decreed that his collection was never to be removed, lent out or broken up. So when it became clear, in the ’90s, that the foundation needed a new site—the Lower Merion location was no longer financially viable—various parties cried foul. The dispute even became the subject of a 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal. Ultimately none of the challenges were successful, and in 2004 plans for the move went ahead.

Born in 1872, Barnes started collecting seriously in 1912, not only works of fine art but also decorative pieces, such as wooden chests, handmade iron tools and Native American ceramics and textiles—all of which he displayed in fascinating juxtaposition. The architects of the foundation’s new $150 million home, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, were tasked with reproducing the original gallery spaces, and as in the old space, must-sees of the foundation’s vast collection—Matisse’s Bonheur de vivre, Van Gogh’s The Postman—hang next to wrought-iron toasting forks and hinges, while the formal qualities of African sculpture are highlighted alongside those of the Modiglianis and Picassos. “Barnes flouted the conventions of hierarchy,” says head curator Judith Dolkart. “He just embraced the human impulse to create.” barnesfoundation.org.