Barnes opening a Super Bowl in arts marketing

The Barnes Foundation's new home on the Parkway (foreground) opens Saturday. City officials see great potential to boost city tourism and development with the Barnes' move from Merion.
The Barnes Foundation's new home on the Parkway (foreground) opens Saturday. City officials see great potential to boost city tourism and development with the Barnes' move from Merion. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 14, 2012

When the Barnes Foundation opens its doors to the public Saturday, it not only will introduce visitors to a new gallery on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; it could well serve as a gateway to Philadelphia's mélange of museums, galleries, art schools, historic sites, and gardens.

Or maybe not.

Aware of the intense interest focused on the foundation's Philadelphia debut - the climax of nearly a quarter-century of hyper-publicity and controversy swirling around the fate of Albert C. Barnes' extraordinary collection of modernist artworks - cultural and tourism officials have been considering how to transform the relocation of an art collection into a regional bonanza.

The Barnes opening is a Super Bowl in arts marketing. Put crassly, the question is: How can the Barnes' move from Merion and to Philadelphia be exploited for tourism and development purposes?

"Is that what it's here for?" Meryl Levitz, head of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp., wondered the other day. "I thought it was here so that more people could bring more beauty into their lives.

"We didn't ask for the Barnes to be moved, but we were greatly in support of it," she continued. "It had to be rescued in order to be kept intact and fulfill the mission of Dr. Barnes. And if it came to the Parkway, all the better.

"Once here, though, I think the challenge is to make sure that it fulfills the mission of being self-sufficient and that it preserves the art intact and that it be accessible to all of the people who he wanted it to be accessible to. And it does have to tell his stories about the interaction of art and horticulture, the interaction of art and education, and art in the workplace, and all of those kinds of things that he really believed in."

Crafting those story lines is where the marketing comes in, and after discussions going back nearly two years, a concept has emerged dubbed "With Art Philadelphia," a play on the city's "With Love" marketing campaign. The heads of institutions once reviled by Barnes, for whatever reason, are suggesting that the doctor's interests, if not necessarily his approach, are now embodied everywhere in the region.

The Barnes collection of early modernist and African art, its engagement with horticulture, its emphasis on art appreciation and education, and, before Barnes' death in 1951, its focus on practical art training - all are part of contemporary regional life; "With Art" seeks to tie them together in the minds of visitors.

While "With Art" takes a broad, long-term view of the Barnes' marketing potential, a handful of museum shows specifically target the Barnes opening.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts - Barnes referred to it as "the morgue" - has mounted PAFA and Dr. Barnes (through July 8) commemorating a traumatic 1923 exhibition of 75 works from Barnes' collection. The original show was savaged by critics as deranged evidence of an "infectious scourge," enraging the combative Barnes.

David Brigham, president and chief executive, noted that the current show comprises works drawn from the academy's own collection as stand-ins for Barnes' reviled canvases. "He was very happy with PAFA," said Brigham. "His initial anger was with the press, not with us."

Brigham and Robert Cozzolino, senior curator, both emphasized that modernist painters on the academy's faculty backed Barnes and his collection. Brigham said that the current show begins to document "a vital moment in our history" when there was a "significant transformation" of the academy into a modernist institution.

In other words, Barnes may have scorned the academy in years after 1923, but his ideas ultimately triumphed.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia (June 20 through Sept. 3) was initially conceived apart from the Barnes opening. But it did not elude museum officials that the relationship to the Barnes collection was strong.

The museum - dubbed by Barnes the "House of Prostitution of Art and Education on the Parkway" - is bringing together Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898), Paul Cézanne's The Large Bathers (1906), and Henri Matisse's Bathers by a River (1909-17), using these monumental canvases to explore the idea of a mythical earthly paradise.

Not only do the paintings relate very directly to work in the Barnes collection, but an unstated irony can be found in the notion of a lost arcadian garden, a place for human contentment and contemplation - precisely the lost world many critics say has been destroyed by the move of the Barnes from its original home in Merion.

Barnes himself was no recluse, however, and the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill has found an unusual way to demonstrate that. Salvatore Pinto: A Retrospective Celebrating the Barnes Legacy, opened at the museum Saturday for a run through July 15. It explores the career of one of the three Philadelphia Pinto brothers, painters Barnes took under his wing. He often drove to their working-class South Philly neighborhood, parked in the middle of the street, and wolfed down a Sunday spaghetti supper. Everyone knew him.

Barnes saw great talent in all the Pintos. He accepted Salvatore to study at the foundation, then paid for him to travel to the south of France to study at Matisse's side.

William R. Valerio, Woodmere director and chief executive, said the exhibition explores a "whole other dimension" of Barnes.

"He was an active entity that made modernism an active entity in Philadelphia," said Valerio.

Beyond the three shows keyed to the Barnes opening, the $2 million "With Art" campaign seeks to draw links between the Barnes and the Penn Museum, the Michener Museum of Art in Doylestown, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, landscape and gardens on the Parkway (including the complete refurbishing of the Rodin Museum and grounds next to the new Barnes site), and the area's art schools and galleries - a whole cultural landscape.

The Barnes opening - Levitz calls it "the art story of the year" - can be used to define Philadelphia as a cultural and visual-arts mecca, she believes. Her organization has created a website ( http://withart.visitphilly.com/) in connection with the marketing campaign, and Internet visitors are invited to "curate your own experience." The website should be completely functional by Tuesday.

While the Barnes opening is the trigger, the marketing gurus do not feel pressed for time. And given the breadth of Barnes' interests, there is no shortage of material.

WHYY has produced a one-hour documentary, The Barnes Collection, for broadcast Aug. 3. The Art Museum will dedicate its new Sol LeWitt garden on May 24. The refurbished Rodin Museum and gardens - rejuvenated by Laurie Olin, who also created the landscaping at the Barnes and elsewhere on the Parkway - will reopen in July.

"The whole gestalt behind the With [Art] is that people don't just do art when they come to a city, they do the With," Levitz said. "So they do eat. They do shop. They do take note of the city's architecture. They do take note of the music and the fashion. The city becomes the experience as well. That's what we're mandated to do. In order to come to the Barnes, you do have to come to Philadelphia first."

And there's no urgency, Levitz pointed out, to launch the kind of hotel packages and enticements that mark blockbuster special exhibitions, though they'll arrive at some point.

The Barnes isn't going anywhere, she said.


Explore the Barnes on the Parkway and learn about

Dr. Barnes and the foundation's history through exclusive multimedia at www.philly.com/barnes


Contact Stephan Salisbury

at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

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