Mark Byrnes

Long hidden in the suburbs, a world-famous art collection gets a new home in downtown Philadelphia.

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

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.
    Perspective

    America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

    Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed.

  2. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  3. photo: Protesters gather at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California on June 3.
    Environment

    Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth

    U.S. cities are now seeing the critical role that public space plays during a crisis. But severe budget cuts are looming. Can investing in parks be part of the urban recovery?

  4. Equity

    What Happened to Crime in Camden?

    Often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, Camden, New Jersey, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.

  5. Four New York City police officers arresting a man.
    Equity

    The Price of Defunding the Police

    A new report fleshes out the controversial demand to cut police department budgets and reallocate those funds into healthcare, housing, jobs, and schools. Will that make communities of color safer?

×