More people can see what he saw

Japanese maples help frame the walkway up to the entrance of the Barnes Foundation, which has moved from Merion to its new and controversial location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Japanese maples help frame the walkway up to the entrance of the Barnes Foundation, which has moved from Merion to its new and controversial location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 15, 2012

Can we all get along?

— Rodney King

The remarkable art collection of the late Albert C. Barnes has been moved to a new, more appropriate home within the city that will allow thousands more visitors to see it than could have at its former suburban location.

This should be a time of celebration. And yet, some want to continue fighting the civil war over moving the art that finally had to be resolved by the courts. It’s hard for the move’s opponents to get over what transpired, but it’s time for them to work just as hard to see that Dr. Barnes’ vision is adhered to as much as possible in his collection’s new abode.

And what an abode it is. The new museum, designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, sits on a 4.5-acre site on the north side of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The fabulous collection will be displayed in 12,000 square feet of exhibition space that replicates the scale, proportion, and configuration of the original galleries in Merion. But an improved lighting system will enable visitors to see the art in a more natural setting.

The Merion location, however, is not being abandoned. That very special place on North Latch’s Lane, built like a residence inside a 12-acre arboretum, which includes more than 3,000 species of woody plants and trees, will continue to house the foundation’s archives, special collections, and horticulture library, where they will be accessible by appointment.

But the foundation’s art library, with its impressive aggregation of materials that give greater relevance to the Barnes collection, will now be open to the public in the new Parkway location. Art students and others will have much greater access to the more than 4,000 books, periodicals, and other resources on art, art history, visual literacy, conservation, art education, and other subjects.

That certainly seems like what Barnes, who died in 1951, would want, though many who knew him — and others who did not — say that’s not so. They base their belief on a will that was written when Philadelphia was a different city. Is it possible that, were Barnes alive today, he might have a different opinion as to the best location for his art not just to be appreciated but to serve as a learning tool?

There is good reason to believe Barnes loved the city in which he was born in 1872 — and its people. He graduated from Central High School, got his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and later made a fortune in pharmaceuticals. He established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to promote “the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” That directive was to be applied to the masses, not just an elite few.

In fact, some who knew him say Barnes had little patience for elitists. He knew what it was like to be poor, having grown up in relative poverty as the son of a South Philadelphia butcher who lost an arm in the Civil War. Barnes took odd jobs as a child, including throwing newspapers along a 12-mile route before going to school each day, according to a biographer. He helped pay his way through Penn playing semi-pro baseball.

This doesn’t sound like the type of person who — when confronted with the poverty of today’s Philadelphia, and seeing its children’s inability to experience the type of arts education possible by exposure to his collection — would oppose the movement of a part of his foundation to a location that will allow more students to visit.

Of course, moving the Barnes benefited people with commercial motives related to tourism. But that doesn’t mean the decision lacked merit. What’s done is done; time to enjoy the art.

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