Visiting the Barnes -- While You Still Can
Published in The New York Times
June 23, 2006
EVEN before I got to the big wrought-iron gate, two myths had been shattered. The Barnes Foundation — the embattled art museum with one of the world's greatest collections — is often portrayed as both hard to get to and the bane of its neighbors in Merion, a wealthy old suburb of Philadelphia.
In fact, from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, the train to Merion took precisely 11 minutes. From there, it was a short walk to the Barnes — and nearly every house I passed had the same sign on its lawn: "The Barnes Belongs in Merion."
I had first been to the Barnes in January. It was one of the high points in a lifetime of museum-going. The collection, which contains hundreds of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, is astonishing. Even more astonishing is the way Albert C. Barnes, a patent-medicine magnate and cultural iconoclast, hung the paintings. He arranged them not by period or style, but in idiosyncratic compositions that use American Indian pottery, African masks and everyday items like spoons and door hinges to establish aesthetic connections. Walking through the rooms, I felt that I was seeing great art through new eyes — which is precisely what Barnes intended.
January was a fine time to visit the museum — the rooms were practically empty — but not to enjoy the Barnes's extraordinary gardens. That's one reason I returned in June. The other was the news this spring that the Barnes was moving forward with its plan to transfer the collection, within a few years, to a new building in central Philadelphia, the result of a court petition by Barnes trustees who believe that the present location is inadequate.
The new building, however carefully planned, will never be able to replicate the experience of seeing the paintings in Barnes's home — with his old hi-fi ready to play the music he selected to accompany the works on display, which include 59 Matisses, 180 Renoirs and 68 Cézannes. Then, too, the building, which includes reliefs by Jacques Lipschitz and ironwork in African-inspired patterns, is considered a work of art in itself.
Visiting the Barnes requires a reservation, but getting one was easy, despite the current limit of 1,200 visitors a week. I called on May 8 and asked if any slots were available on Saturday, June 3. A very pleasant woman said, "Yes; 9:30, 12:30 or 1 o'clock." I chose 1 p.m. and gave her a credit card number (the charge is $10 a person).
My plan was to take public transportation to the Barnes. From Amtrak's 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, there are at least three ways to get to the museum: by taxi (15 minutes and $20); bus (20 minutes, $2) or train (12 minutes, $3). I chose the train, which leaves from a terminal above the Amtrak platforms. On the way to Merion, other passengers gave me directions for the 10-minute walk from Merion station to the museum and, for good measure, told me which paintings I absolutely should not miss.
During the walk, I met one of the supposedly angry neighbors, Steven Asher, who was out walking his dog. He said he lived across the street from the Barnes and would have no objection to its staying as it is. "You can't even tell when it's open or closed," he said.
INSIDE, I found the collection no less thrilling than on my first visit. This time, I chose to focus on just a few of the 24 galleries — the rooms of Barnes's house, exactly as they were when he died in a car accident in 1951. My favorite is a small corner room, Gallery 22, which I estimated to be 14 by 16 feet, about the size of my bedroom but, unlike my bedroom, containing about 30 major works of art and dozens more that aren't even identified. One wall bears a symmetrical composition incorporating, among other works, two superb Picassos ("Head of a Man" and "Head of a Woman"), two astonishingly lively watercolors by Charles Demuth and two Modigliani portraits. A showcase added more than a dozen African carvings to the mix.
Like every room in the Barnes, Gallery 22 has places where I could sit and contemplate the artworks. Even on a Saturday in June, I never counted more than 10 or 12 people in a room; at times I was alone. The only sounds in the building were the occasional words of a pleasant docent, Shirley Miller, who once studied art history at the Barnes. ("We climbed a ladder and counted the dots in the Seurat," she said.)
Barnes saw himself as creating not a museum but an art school, where visitors (including, he insisted, inner-city children) would be exposed to his ideas of beauty. His favorite painters were Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne, and he was able to acquire hundreds of their works before World War II for prices that wouldn't even cover shipping today. He also bought works by painters he considered less important, for educational purposes. Luckily, one of those artists was Van Gogh, who is represented in the collection by a mere seven paintings. One of my favorites, a psychedelic portrait of the postman Joseph-Etienne Roulin, hangs in a corner, exactly where Barnes placed it.
Taking a break from the art, I wandered through the arboretum, which includes a superb lilac garden and a pond tucked in the woods. I also surveyed the Barnes's concessions to the public (new restrooms and a vending machine offering water and soft drinks). Then, in the gift shop, I made a happy discovery: The Barnes sells a CD-ROM ($35) cataloguing much of the collection. Now, on my home computer, I can learn more about the paintings, listening to the same commentary available on the museum's audio guide.
But even more important, the CD-ROM contains a photograph of every wall of every gallery at the Barnes. That means I can see not just the paintings, but the furniture, the pottery, the odd ephemera that round out the Barnes's wall-sized tableaux.
I don't know when — or pretend to understand why — the Barnes is moving. I'm just glad my hard drive is imprinted with the memory of how Barnes wanted the collection to be seen. And I don't mean my computer.
If You Go
The Barnes Foundation (300 North Latch's Lane, Merion, Pa.; 610-667-0290; www.barnesfoundation.org) is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday in July and August and Friday through Sunday September through June. Admission is $10; reservations are required. An audio guide is $7.
Buses and trains for Merion leave from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. From the station, walk across the street for the No. 44 bus or walk upstairs to the Septa (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority; www.septa.org) station and board any local train on the R5 line, terminating in Paoli. From the bus, get off at the corner of Old Lancaster Road and North Latch's Lane and walk about three-tenths of a mile to the Barnes. From the Septa Merion rail station the walk is six-tenths of a mile: make a right at the stop sign onto Merion Road, walk alongside the town park and then make a left onto North Latch's Lane. The Barnes is past Episcopal Academy on the right.
By car, the Barnes is accessible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) northwest of Philadelphia. Take Exit 339 to Route 1 South/City Avenue. Drive 1.7 miles on Route 1 and turn right onto Old Lancaster Road (called 54th Street on the other side of the intersection). Drive two-tenths of a mile and turn left onto North Latch's Lane. Parking is $10; spaces can be reserved in advance.