Envision the Barnes Foundation’s new Philadelphia facility filled with kids from all backgrounds enjoying the splendors of some of the most important artworks of the 20th century. That’s what museum officials are doing as they gear up for it’s opening on May 19.
“We go from being somewhat sequestered and somewhat invisible to being in the most public part of Philadelphia. This is where we welcome America. Our ability to invite people in and see who we are and what we do dramatically changes,” said Blake Bradford, the foundation’s director of education, who envisions the museum filled with people — a significant portion of them students.
“We hope to make this wonderful collection of art available to many more people in the rubric of Dr. Barnes’ interest who felt that art should be available to everybody and that it enriched human lives,” said Bernard C. Watson, chairman of the museum’s board of Trustees.
The world renown collection, assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes from the early 1900s until his death in 1951, includes impressionist and post-impressionist works by European and American masters, early modern art, African sculpture, Pennsylvania German decorative arts, Native American textiles, metalwork.
With an estimated worth of $25 billion, it is among the greatest art collections in the world. Until recently the collection was housed in a beaux arts style complex of buildings in a residential neighborhood in Merion. That, along with the complicated rules established by Barnes at his death, limited the number of visitors to the site.
In its new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway the number of visitors can increase dramatically.
The new building, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien replicates the scale, proportion and configuration of the foundation's original galleries in Merion, in keeping with specifications laid out by Barnes before his death. But it also, includes a number of enhancements that museum officials hope will improve the experience for visitors. They include: a 5,000-square-foot space devoted to special exhibitions, classrooms, a 150-seat auditorium, and facilities for painting conservation and research.
Foundation officials hope the facility will draw children, students and art lovers from all over the world and bring them together in a space that enhances their experience in way that would not have been possible in Merion.
Pointing to the fact that the number of Barnes Foundation members has risen from 400 to more than 10,000 in the last several years, officials are confident they made the right decision.
Space is not the only advantage to the new facility.
Technology has been integrated into the teaching spaces to give participants a broader cultural experience.
“We can spend time in the galleries looking at our collection,” Bradford said. “Then immediately access databases of works that might be related. So for example, looking at a Cezanne – the Cezannes we have in our collection and then looking at related works in other collections – without leaving the gallery.”
Hopes are that students – Philadelphia public school students specifically – will feel at home in the new museum.
“We want to make sure that the experience is opening and mind expanding,” said Jacqueline F. Allen, a member of the foundation’s board of trustees. “And, not just shuttle kids through. We are about the experience and making art appreciation and education the experience that Dr. Barnes wanted, open to a wider number of people.”
Officials hope to expand the total number of students, K-12, who visit the museum to about 7,500 students. An estimated 5,000 of them will come from Philadelphia public schools.
For Philadelphia students the visit will be free.
“Our intention is to fully subsidize participation for Philadelphia public school students,” Bradford said.
Education has always been at the heart of the collection.
Barnes’ will placed the foundation under the control of Lincoln University and the school, though its influence has been diminished, will continue to be an active participant at the new site.
Again, students will be at the core of that participation.
“We are very excited about possibilities and the relationship,” said Robert Jennings, president of Lincoln University. “We want our students to get hands on experience and what we hope to have happen is … that they will have something they can add to resume very quickly. When we look at museums nationwide there is an absence of people of color.”
Jennings said the relationship will also help the university rebrand itself as it looks to its future.
“I think it’s going to be a win/win,” he said. “More importantly, I think it’s going to help us maintain the spirit of what Dr. Barnes was all about.”
Plans to move the collection from Merion, where Barnes established it, into Philadelphia have been highly controversial. The foundation is still involved in litigation over the move but Watson said he was confident Barnes would approve.
“What we’re trying to do is focus on what Dr. Barnes intended and to move the art in keeping with philosophy and views on art,” said Watson.