A lucky few without tickets get a surprise visit inside the new Barnes

For Barnes' opening, a small number of reserved tickets were allotted, but officials also decided to treat some to free passes. In the main gallery are Ambrose Crenshaw and Saudy Carrera.
For Barnes' opening, a small number of reserved tickets were allotted, but officials also decided to treat some to free passes. In the main gallery are Ambrose Crenshaw and Saudy Carrera. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 21, 2012

On the day when, at long last, the reincarnated Barnes museum opened to the public, the collection of visitors was so strange a conglomeration that the eccentric Albert C. Barnes might actually have approved.

Early Saturday morning downstairs in the auditorium, a private symposium, sponsored by Christie's, was held for about 200 art collectors, museum directors, educators, and auction-house representatives - the very sort of cuff-linked and pedigreed swells Barnes disdained.

The first speaker, John Henry Merryman, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, lamented the growth of cultural nationalism, which keeps many important art objects sequestered in "dead storage," like the 30,000 objects unearthed in Greece during preparations for the 2004 Olympics. He then praised the moral rectitude of private art ownership, saying: "Art collections are a good. And art collections like the one at the Barnes are a particularly good good."

He was followed on stage by the likes of Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; Neil Rudenstine, former president of Harvard University; and Ralph Wellington, one of the attorneys who helped amend Barnes' document to allow the museum to move to Philadelphia.

At 11:30, while the erudite panel discussions proceeded, a few dozen "plain people" - the kind Barnes professed to want to see his art - were being welcomed through the grand doors into the galleries.

The official plan had been for a "soft opening" to follow Friday's official dedication and the glittery gala that drew 875 patrons, at $5,000 a ticket.

Gallery access Saturday was reserved primarily for those attending the invitation-only symposium. Only a small number of free tickets had been allotted for the public, a Barnes spokeswoman said.

With the symposium guests in the auditorium, however, and the galleries virtually empty, the decision was made to treat some impromptu visitors to a free pass.

"I heard on the radio that it was opening today, so I decided to come," said Linda Presley, 51, an unemployed clerical worker from Logan. The last time Presley could remember going to a museum was on a field trip in elementary school. "I am interested in art, but have no education in it."

Sal Lentini, a retired engineer from the Northeast, was on his way to a festival on Rittenhouse Square when he passed the museum. "I was walking around the outside of the building. I was curious because there had been so much publicity about it. Then I heard you didn't need a ticket to get in, so here I am."

Barnes was a research chemist who made a fortune at the turn of the last century on a drug that prevented blindness in infants. An iconoclastic character, brilliant, ruthless, and mercurial, he amassed an astonishing collection of impressionist and postimpressionist art during his 79 years, and displayed it meticulously in his bucolic Merion mansion, where it was intended to be used for art education.

The collection has survived a tempestuous history, years of bitter and expensive litigation over whether the masterpieces should forever remain in the original location, as Barnes wanted, or be moved to the city, where it would be better preserved and more accessible.

The dispute settled, although hiccups of dissent continue, and the art found its new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, joining its distinguished nearby neighbors, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum.

The Barnes saga has riveted, entertained, disturbed, and fascinated art lovers around the world. But it never reached Carol Stoltz and Sy Friedland in Boston. The bookstore owner and her husband, a retired psychologist, were in Philadelphia for the weekend visiting their daughter. On Friday night, looking out of their hotel window at the Embassy Suites, they asked their daughter's boyfriend: "What is that building?"

"He told us it was some private art collection," said Stoltz. "Then we heard on TV that it was opening today." So they walked over and, within minutes, found themselves on the second floor, marveling at the Matisse triptych.

The couple's random good fortune might have been frustrating for ardent Barnes fans, who bought memberships and reserved tickets months ago. But the Barnes experience has always been quirky, so no one was complaining.

Chelsea O'Rourke, who works at the Drexel University television station, had reserved her ticket long in advance of Saturday's opening. Once, maybe it was 10 years ago, she says, she had visited the Barnes in Merion. "I remember staring at one wall for 15 minutes. It was overwhelming."

After hearing about all the controversy over the move, O'Rourke had worried. It had been the density, the intimacy, of all those Renoirs and Picassos and Matisses and Cezannes crowded together that she had found so thrilling.

"I thought in this new space, they would thin it out," she said. "But they didn't. This is awesome. I have the same overwhelming feeling here that I did there."

Craig Goodman had also planned early so he could bear witness on the first day. Goodman, 60, president of a marketing association, drove up Friday night from Washington and was one of the first in line when the doors opened Saturday. "Nowhere in the world is there a collection like this," he said. "It's breathtaking."


Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com or follow on twitter @dribbenonphilly.

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