Neubauer, Roberts to receive Philadelphia Award

Aileen Roberts and Joseph Neubauer, Phila. Award winners. Tom Crane Photography
Aileen Roberts and Joseph Neubauer, Phila. Award winners. Tom Crane Photography
Posted: May 25, 2012

There is nothing in the deep backgrounds of either Joseph Neubauer or Aileen Roberts that quite augurs the passion, imagination, and sheer stubbornness required to move an embedded cultural monument and build it anew.

Yet that is exactly what Neubauer and Roberts have helped achieve, and on Thursday they will receive the coveted Philadelphia Award, the civic honor established in 1921 by Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward W. Bok, in recognition of their efforts.

The award, given for their central roles in bringing the Barnes Foundation from Merion to Philadelphia and finding the financial wherewithal and architectural panache to pull it off, will be presented, appropriately enough, at the foundation’s just-opened building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Susan E. Sherman, president of the Independence Foundation and chair of the Philadelphia Award trustees, said Neubauer and Roberts were the unanimous choice of the board. The honor comes with a medal designed by Violet Oakley and a cash prize of $25,000.

Sherman said the award is an acknowledgment of the “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.”

The Barnes, Sherman said, has “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.”

Neubauer, 70, who just stepped down after nearly three decades as chief executive of Aramark Corp., the food services and facilities-management giant, was born in Germany and fled with his family to Palestine during World War II. At age 14, he traveled alone to the United States to live with relatives in Massachusetts. He studied chemical engineering at Tufts University and business at the University of Chicago (on a full scholarship).

Neubauer then landed at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City during the David Rockefeller years. Rockefeller, a legendary patron of the arts, became a mentor before Neubauer moved on to PepsiCo and eventually to Aramark.

Along the way, he acquired a growing interest in the arts. His passion for detail and his long-range view were essential in the Barnes project. He was tasked with leading the $200 million fund-raising campaign that made the move possible. Despite the litigation and controversy swirling around the move, Neubauer kept his eye on the prize.

“The hard part was staying focused because the project had a lot of noise around it,” he said, noting that early donors were critical because they were open in support of an idea that had little physical reality — not even a design.

“People were really just buying the idea,” Neubauer told The Inquirer in February, when the award was announced. “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.”

Roberts also has a banking background, as well as a degree from the design college of North Carolina State University. Married to Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast Corp., she has been a philanthropic force in cultural and health-care projects.

As chairwoman of the Barnes building committee, charged with selection of the architects for the new gallery, she threw herself completely into the task, calling it “the project of a lifetime.”

A small, highly visible site, financial constraints, and a court order requiring replication in Philadelphia of Barnes galleries as they existed in the foundation’s original Merion home created a highly complex project. Roberts’ committee eventually settled on Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects of New York as designers of the Barnes on the Parkway.

“The building,” she said, “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. “

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @SPSalisbury.

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