Philadelphia (finally) gets the Barnes art collection

May 18, 2012, 7:29 PM UTC

FORTUNE (Philadelphia) — The Barnes art collection has finally moved. One of the world’s most valuable private collections of art now resides on a 4.5 acre campus in downtown Philadelphia, against — it needs to be said — the wishes of its founder, the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who had willed it to remain at his home in Lower Merion, Penn., a suburb six miles from downtown.

The move, nearly 10 years in the making, comes after decades of legal battles, financial struggles, unethical political maneuvers, and vociferous protest from art purists, all well documented in the controversial 2009 film The Art of the Steal. The documentary details the Barnes Foundation’s efforts to dismantle and reinterpret the Barnes will and the evolution of a private estate into a major public institution.

Expect some demonstrations when the Foundation opens its doors to the public this Saturday.

The capital fund for the project topped $200 million, including $150 million for a new environmentally sustainable building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and $50 million for a new endowment. The project was bankrolled by Comcast, PNC Bank, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annenberg Foundation, as well as taxpayers, in the form of public funding from both Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia.

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This weekend the opening will be celebrated with a series of galas to honor those wealthy patrons, corporate donors, and charitable trusts. That’s enough posturing to make the socially-averse Dr. Barnes roll in his grave.

A chemist, Dr. Barnes was a self-made millionaire who built his fortune with the gonorrhea drug Argyrol, and in 1912 began a lifelong pursuit of collecting paintings that he considered to be masterpieces. Over the next 40 years, he assembled the largest private collection of Modernist and Post-Impressionist art in the world, including 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 7 by van Gogh, 46 by Picasso, 18 by Rousseau, and dozens of Old Master paintings by El Greco, Veronese, Tintoretto, Durer, Rubens and others. The collection also includes 125 African sculptures, masks, and tools. It is estimated that the Foundation’s holdings of more than 2,500 objects are worth more than $25 billion.

Before a 1951 car accident ended his life at age 79, Barnes had explicitly expressed his desire to keep his collection out of the hands of Philadelphia’s Main Line society, with the intention for the art to remain an educational tool for art students.

The history of Barnes’s obsessive control over his art collection is well documented. In his lifetime he received many requests from strangers who wanted to see the collection, which he made available only to select audiences, usually students or artists who would write for permission to visit the house in Merion. Barnes penned witty responses, usually invoking a pseudonym to maintain an elusive presence.

Requests from art critics were categorically denied, usually signed by Barnes’s dog Fidèle with an inked pawprint. In 1939, he (writing in third person while pretending to be a secretary) responded to auto baron Walter P. Chrysler: “because he gave strict orders that he is not to be disturbed during his present strenuous efforts to break the world’s record for goldfish swallowing.”

Barnes’ letters are currently on display in the museum in a temporary exhibition about the physicist’s life. The art is on permanent display exactly as Barnes intended, in a series of galleries meant to recreate the house in Merion. Catering to the Barnes purists (and theoretically adhering to Barnes’s original sketches), the layout, structure, and design of the house have been completely replicated in the new building.

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Unfortunately the curators decided to continue Barnes’s tradition of cluttering each wall with too many canvases, often stacking them three or four high, keeping many paintings much too high for the eyes of any observer, regardless of their height or interest. This is a collection that demands attention as well as time. The two and a half hours this reporter spent with it weren’t enough to appreciate the hundreds of paintings, which are jammed, albeit symmetrically, into 24 rooms. Barnes was a genius art collector, but he wasn’t a very talented gallerist.

The centerpiece of the collection is Matisse’s transcendent masterpiece “The Joy of Life,” which is given a prominent position in a small gallery on the second floor. At the house in Merion, the painting was difficult to see because of poor lighting and an awkward location above a stairway.  Now the bright pastels of its pastoral scene can be viewed up close.

Barnes also collected wrought-iron objects. Spatulas, door handles, hinges, keyhole coverings and the like are interspersed throughout the galleries like punctuation, as if to accentuate the frustrating displays on each wall.  A selection of period furniture is also symmetrically arranged, adding a homey atmosphere that seems out of place in such a minimalist structure.

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The architecture, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, is commanding, clean, and purposeful. The exteriors are covered with textured gray and gold limestone, and a shallow moat runs the length of the building. Visitors walk down a pathway lined with Japanese maples before crossing a footbridge to the entrance. The interior of the two-story building is decorated in natural wood tones, and two tree-filled atriums lend a natural aesthetic to the “garden within a gallery” theme.

The decision to move the art into a space that replicates the Merion home makes the endeavor seem superfluous.  But there are two main advantages of the new campus that make the move worthwhile: an improvement in lighting design (by Paul Marantz) from the collection’s previous home and the accessibility to masses of tourists. A lecture hall and two state of the art classrooms are artfully hidden within the wings of the gallery space, and the Foundation’s archives and libraries dedicated to art and horticulture are given ample space for students.

Barnes’s original intent to restrict visitors seems no longer reasonable, especially since the needs of arts institutions have vastly changed over the past 60 years. For a museum to survive, it needs to be seen. Art can’t exist in the U.S. without big business or the private sector today.

It’s not possible to know whether Barnes himself would approve of the new campus in Philadelphia. He probably would’ve taken issue with the gift shop in the basement, or the onsite restaurant, or maybe even the coffee shop.

On Wednesday, a handful of protesters had already gathered outside the front gates, holding black signs with white lettering that read: “RIP Donor Intent.”  Hopefully they’ll soon discover causes that have greater importance.