Often cast as reluctant to - figuratively speaking - fling open the front doors of the art gallery, the foundation seems poised to shine a light out back. It's considering a broader, more user-friendly future for the horticultural school and the arboretum that serves as its living classroom.
"The art collection overwhelms the consciousness of this place, so in moving the art collection, we can give the arboretum and the horticulture program a bigger life of its own," says Andrew Stewart, the Barnes' marketing director.
Over the next three days, 60 Barnes alumni, staff, board members, and friends are gathering to imagine what that "bigger life" might be. When all is said and done, arboretum director Jacob Thomas hopes to have a strategy for life after the art leaves town.
For example, should the 69-year-old horticulture program be expanded? It now has 17 teachers, 40 students, and a three-year curriculum.
How big should the program be - or how small? Should it affiliate with a university? What about offering short gardening workshops and "green" courses that don't require a long-term academic commitment?
"Everywhere you look, even Home Depot, the green industry is growing," says Thomas, a botanist who teaches in the program. "There's a tremendous need for education."
There's also a behavioral shift going on.
"People aren't traveling. They're staying close to home and looking for meaningful value," says Paul Redman, director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, which drew 854,000 visitors last year.
The Barnes will never be a Longwood Gardens; its art gallery, best known for an extraordinary impressionist collection, draws about 62,500 visitors a year. The arboretum, which does not have separate tickets, is tended by a staff of three - compared with 23 when Albert and Laura Barnes were alive.
And the arboretum "school" occupies two tiny classrooms that hold 20 students, max.
So the question is: How can the Barnes raise its horticultural profile in a region already loaded with prestigious arboretums, public gardens and estates, plant-research centers and foundations?
Is there room for more?
"Absolutely," says Redman. "There's such an interest and passion for horticulture and gardening in the Philadelphia region. The ability to attract people is there, so I don't think the area is saturated.
"And when we all look at what other programs are offering, it helps elevate all of us," he says.
The arboretum was established in the 1880s by Joseph Lapsley Wilson, who lived on the North Latchs Lane property before the Barneses bought it in 1922. Laura Barnes, who lacked horticultural training but was blessed with expert advice, vastly expanded the arboretum's offerings to include more than 2,000 unusual varieties of plants and trees from the region and the world.
Today, there are about 3,000.
There are formal gardens for roses, peonies, and perennials; a pond down by the Barnes' frozen-in-time teahouse retreat; and a lush woodland area that in early spring fluffs up with ferns, snowdrops, and crocuses.
Driving along this quiet suburban lane, you'd never guess that a world-famous art collection, or an arboretum and horticulture school, were inside the French Renaissance house with the heavy iron gates.
After a long and bitter court fight prompted by the Barnes trustees' desire to move the collection, the paintings' new home is to be built next to the Rodin Museum on the Parkway. This is the old Youth Study Center site, a mere hop from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The legal wrangling over, some who opposed moving the art say they'd like nothing better than a higher profile for the arboretum and school.
"But there's no reason they can't do that tomorrow. They don't have to wait for the art to move," said Nancy Herman, who with her husband, Walter, lives across from the Barnes.
Herman is an artist and gardener who says she would "absolutely" take horticulture workshops at the arboretum. She'd also like to paint on the grounds, something that was allowed at one time but no more.
The Hermans are members of the Friends of the Barnes, which fought the foundation in court. "I guess that's why we weren't invited to the meeting," Nancy said.
Community supporters are part of the group gathering today. They'll be led by arboretum school graduate and business consultant Marilyn Sifford, who has been charged with translating disparate ideas into recommendations for the future.
Her report is expected in May.
For now, a $12 gallery ticket still gets you into the arboretum, where in spring you can walk among Laura Barnes' favorites. Those would be lilacs, peonies, and ferns, but when you ask what's special here, everyone mentions the trees:
The monkey puzzle tree, with its weird, splayed branches; the handkerchief tree, named for its hang-down, hankie-like flowers, and the beautiful Stewartias, with their cinnamon-brown bark.
The arboretum also includes a collection of about 10,000 dried plant specimens, called a herbarium; a 2,500-volume library; and a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse, where students often can be found.
There are more than 500 alums, but no association to connect them - one of many things that Thomas, arboretum director since 2002, wants to change.
One thing that won't change, he and others say, is the mission of the Barnes.
Olive Mosier, arts and culture director at the William Penn Foundation, says the Barnes arboretum is unique in the area's horticultural constellation but it is integral to the Barnes' identity. "I think it would be a mistake to look at it as something separate or different from the Barnes Foundation. It is the Barnes.
"So it's a matter of figuring out how those two sides of the coin - the art and the horticulture - stay intersected in this larger educational mission."
Contact staff writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.
Find information on visiting the Barnes' gallery and arboretum at http://go.philly.com/arboretum.