Greetings from the first capital of the land of the free
Hello, Summer Voice readers! I’m a firm believer in the maxim regarding things that are better late than never, so here’s my first post.
I don’t have any fancy internship like my fellow bloggers, but I’m super stoked that they’re all having a wonderful time in wonderful places. I’m living at home in Cinnaminson, New Jersey and working at a law office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I get to work in a lovely part of town on Rittenhouse Square, which is one of the original five parks planned by William Penn when he was planning his Quaker utopia.
Since I don’t have much to say as a law clerk (I mostly read and summarize things during the day), I’m simply going to write about some things in the area that I think are awesome. The first of these things is an institution for art education called the Barnes Foundation. It’s the coolest.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Albert C. Barnes, he was a doctor who died in 1951. Before he died, however, he invented an antibiotic to treat gonorrhea and gonorrheal blindness in infants. He sold himself out in 1929, just before the crash, for a sum just north of five million dollars. This allowed him the financial freedom to open his arboretum and home in Merion, PA (one block from the city limits of Philadelphia) for use as a school. He would wake up, throw a 78 on his Victrola, and lecture on art and philosophy every day. He didn’t charge any money, but he had to personally approve students’ enrollment.
If you simply wanted to visit his gallery, which now houses over eight hundred paintings, you still had to request admission from him. If he really hated you, he was wont to respond to your request with a letter signed by his dog. Not kidding. If you had anything to do with the “Art Establishment,” Al wanted nothing to do with you. There’s apparently a famous art critic who was only able to gain admission to the galleries by posing as an illiterate workman.
Speaking of the galleries themselves, they consist of about nineteen rooms of varying shapes and sizes, some of which feature walls at strange angles and slightly cramped viewing conditions. To avoid overcrowding in any one gallery, visitors are required to make reservations and are asked to arrive fifteen minutes before their specified time. Noted art authority Ayano Elson ’13 had this to say about the gallery layout in the presence of other museum-goers, “I give it two thumbs up, but the shapes of the rooms did not allow great air flow which resulted in ‘trappedfartsmell.’ The fart-to-clean-air ratio was in the fart’s favor.”
By the time visitors enter the gallery, they have had to speak with a minimum of three Barnes Foundation employees, who range from hipster-looking young women with good hair to angry old ladies with bad hair. There’s also a really sassy black security guard with great sunglasses. She’s probably my favorite.
Anyway, the galleries contain dozens of “wall ensembles” created personally by Barnes that consist of thematic links that have nothing at all to do with artists or periods, but aesthetics. He stipulated in his will that they never be altered. Ever. The paintings are complemented by pieces of hanging ironwork, locks, keys, chairs, candle stands, chests, small sculptures (including many African sculptures, which influenced some of his pet artists like Modigliani and Picasso), and textiles. Basically, he designed every room to his exact aesthetic specifications to highlight whatever aspect of the art he felt needed to be emphasized — be it white accents, the color red, zig-zagging lines, or Matisse’s influence on Glackens. He was crazy brilliant and brilliantly crazy.
The ensembles are usually arranged with a large central painting flanked by several smaller paintings, none of which are more than six inches or so apart. It’s very consciously anti-museum. Pictures are identified only on laminated sheets that viewers have to retrieve on their own; Barnes didn’t want note cards interfering with his ensembles. The audio tours, which are available for seven dollars, go to great lengths to explain the arrangement of certain ensembles, while leaving others up to the viewer.
Hopefully you’re able to understand what I mean even if you don’t have a very clear image, but I suppose now is the time to drop the dollars-bomb. The collection is estimated by Vanity Fair to be worth about $25 billion – with a B.
The primary purpose of the institution is to educate, and semester-long courses and weekend workshops are available for very low prices, keeping alive Barnes’ passion for educating the underprivileged by showing them 180+ Renoirs, 70+ Cezannes, 65+ Matisses, seven Van Goghs, and a handful of Picassos, Seurats, Soutines, El Grecos, and Modiglianis.
A movie just came out last year called The Art of the Steal about the Barnes and the efforts of the city of Philadelphia to relocate the collection to Center City (still haven’t seen it, but it’s in my queue). Unfortunately for the estate of Albert C. Barnes, they’ve won. The “Barnes on the Parkway,” as it’s been dubbed, is due to be finished in 2012. It’s going to be a stone’s throw away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Ben Franklin Parkway.
If you live in the area, you’ve simply got to check this place out before it moves. I don’t think there’s a collection like it anywhere in the country. The New Yorker‘s art critic Peter Schjeldahl has called the entire facility “a work of art in itself . . . . Altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime.” The paintings and even the wall ensembles will stay together, but they’re not going to be in the house that Barnes built.