Stu Bykofsky: A monster rises on the Parkway

The Barnes Foundation Museum, under construction on Ben Franklin Parkway.
The Barnes Foundation Museum, under construction on Ben Franklin Parkway. (STU BYKOFSKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: March 19, 2012

"THAT IS the last goddamn straw!" roared Dr. Albert C. Barnes.The long-dead Dr. Barnes was complaining about the stark, stainless-steel sculpture commissioned to "grace" the exterior of the new Barnes Foundation Museum that is racing toward a May 19 opening (in time for the tourist season). The sculpture, by Ellsworth Kelly, is a 40-foot Popsicle stick with a zigzag center.

"It looks like a giant middle finger held up to torment me," growled the ghost of the cremated Dr. Barnes. (Yes, I talk to dead people. Call it Stu's Sixth Sense.)

"It is cold, emotionless, inhuman, evocative of, of . . . nothing," moaned Dr. Barnes' shade.

"I hate it almost as much as that uninspired mausoleum that will imprison my priceless art collection."

"What's wrong with the building?" I asked.

"Have you seen it?" wailed Dr. Barnes. "Listen: It's dreck! Designers Tod Williams and Billie Tsien . . . are they crazy? The architecture of the Whole Foods across the street fits into the Parkway better.

"Look at the Rodin Museum, the Free Library, the Family Court. Grandeur. Elegance. They create awe. You want to stop and stare.

"The new museum makes you want to stop and hurl. Flat and colorless, it would be wretched on Delaware Avenue, but on the dazzling Parkway it's like a pirate eyepatch on the Mona Lisa," Dr. Barnes said. "The Youth Study Center, which they tore down to put that thing up, had more style. They spent $200 million and built a Costco? I may put a curse on it."

But the inside is good, I am told.

"Like a pomegranate? A catfish?" Dr. Barnes said. "My father started life as a butcher. This is something he might have done. He was shot up in the Civil War, then found work as a letter carrier. Yeah - a one-armed postman. It's a joke, like that ugly monster of a building. In Lower Merion, my collection was in a mansion."

Wasn't that museum bankrupt and forced to move to survive?

"Did you hurt your head when you fell off the turnip truck? Listen: I had a vast collection of art by impressionist masters - Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Seurat, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne - worth maybe a billion dollars, the museum was in the red for a measly million and the only solution was to move? Not to cut swollen administrative expenses, not increase the number of admissions and the ticket price?" said Dr. Barnes.

"Face facts. The Philadelphia elite lusted for my art as a magnet for tourism and they set out to break my will, which dictated the museum remain where I established it. That was supposed to be guaranteed by trustees at Lincoln University, but they got run over."

Are you sure about all this?

"Go see the documentary 'The Art of the Steal.' This was a court-endorsed theft. My will was broken, my art was stolen and moved to Philly for the city's benefit."

Isn't that a good thing?

"Good for Philly, yes. It will draw tourists. Good for justice, no," Dr. Barnes told me.

I'm told your eccentric method of displaying the art will be maintained in the new building.

"Too little and too late. Do you know how I made my millions?"

No, I don't.

"Ha! I developed a drug for the treatment of gonorrhea. Here's my curse: You go into that wretched building, you will get a strain of the clap that resists treatment."

Is that the right thing to do?

"The way I feel, they dis me, I dose them," said Dr. Barnes, resuming his troubled eternal rest.

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