Philadelphia Award goes to Aileen Roberts, Joseph Neubauer

Aileen K. Roberts and Joseph Neubauer. (Tom Crane Photography, Inc.)
Aileen K. Roberts and Joseph Neubauer. (Tom Crane Photography, Inc.)
Posted: February 28, 2012

Following in the footsteps of Leopold Stokowski, Marian Anderson, Louis I. Kahn, and Richardson Dilworth, two members of the Barnes Foundation board have been named recipients of the Philadelphia Award.

Aileen Roberts and Joseph Neubauer will share the coveted civic prize, established in 1921 by Ladies' Home Journal editor Edward W. Bok, for their active roles in moving the Barnes to Center City.

Neubauer, as much as he shuns attention, admitted yesterday to a bout of pride.

"I don't like publicity, if anything I go the other way," he said in an interview. "But this is such a fantastic project that I think people ought to know it's here for the right reasons, at the right time, and in the right place, and that it's going to be accessible."

Roberts, too, turned the spotlight back on the institution, calling the Barnes "the project of a lifetime." She said that site constraints, budgetary demands, and the mandate to replicate the Barnes galleries created an enormously complicated project.

"But the building looks like an obvious solution now, and one that has exceeded everyone's expectations in its elegant simplicity. When you're involved in designing a project like this, you have this vision of what something can be, and when it actually turns out to be so much more, it takes your breath away."

Ceremonies for the Philadelphia Award are being planned for May or early June, around the time that the Barnes' impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern works, long resident in Merion, reappear in their new Philadelphia home on the Parkway.

Neubauer, chairman and chief executive officer of Aramark Corp., was instrumental in raising $150 million for the new building and more than $50 million for the endowment. Roberts - chair of the Barnes' building committee and wife of Comcast chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts - assisted in tasks as fundamental as choosing the building's architects and as detailed as traveling to a quarry in Israel to review stone for the building's exterior.

The Roberts and Neubauer application was culled from among 29 nominations, said Independence Foundation president Susan E. Sherman, who chairs the Philadelphia Award trustees. The honor comes with a medal - in this case, two - designed by Violet Oakley, and a cash prize of $25,000.

The choice of Roberts and Neubauer was unanimous, she said.

"It's because the Barnes is opening in Philadelphia, and the amount of work they both put into bringing the Barnes to Philadelphia in a meaningful way that would be, as Aileen put it, left as a gift to the next generation," Sherman said. "It's been so limited in people's ability to see it, and now it will be more open for the public, and it will make Philadelphia more of a destination city."

The decision to separate the collection from the original setting created for it by founder Albert C. Barnes infuriated many critics and other art lovers. Sherman said the controversy surrounding the Barnes' move to town barely came up among the Philadelphia Award trustees. "I could not say it was never mentioned, it just did not enter into the deliberative process," she said.

 "The hard part was staying focused, because the project had a lot of noise around it," said Neubauer. Charged with raising more than $200 million, Neubauer praised early donors to the project who signed on "without us having a lot of materials to show them. People were really just buying the idea. But it was very rewarding to know that there was a lot of community support. We had a fantastic collection - I always told people that we could put it in a quonset hut and people would come. But we gave it a fantastic home."

Aileen Roberts - a former banker with a degree from the design college of North Carolina State University - said her most critical decision came as head of the committee that chose Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. She sought advice from architects and academics, and visited from 25 to 30 museums in the United States and Europe "to see what was the newest, latest, and greatest that we could do."

In the end, Roberts said the choice of the New York architects was guided by her decade as a parent and member of the board of overseers of William Penn Charter School - and a certain sense of Quakerism.

"I remember telling Joe that we were going to do this by consensus. We're going to study the problem long enough and hard enough that we're all going to come to the same conclusion. And that's what happened."

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or Read his blog at

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