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Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia: What did the critics think?

ArtReviewsArchitecturePhiladelphia (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)MuseumsArts and CultureThe Philadelphia Inquirer

One of the most controversial moves in recent art-world memory, the relocation of the Barnes Foundation, has drawn the national press to Philadelphia where the venerated art institution opened its new building earlier this month.

The Barnes, which was founded in 1922, possesses numerous pieces of art ranging from ancient works to Impressionist paintings to modernist masterpieces. For many, it represents one of the most important art collections in the world. The foundation was located for many years in Lower Merion, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.

When the Barnes began the process of relocating to Philadelphia's Center City area nearly 10 years ago, which they said was in part to increase its accessibility, the decision proved to be extremely contentious. The will of Albert C. Barnes, the founder of the organization, specified that the collection should remain as it was at the original location.

A lawsuit followed with a judge eventually deciding in favor of the move.

The new $150-million museum was designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, based in New York.

How have art critics reacted to the new Barnes museum? The verdict has been mixed so far.

Christopher Knight of the L.A. Times described the new museum as "bland" and wrote that the "new place is a tweaked simulacrum of the old. Rather than reimagine this astounding collection, the movers chose to copy." Ultimately, what had been a "singular" venue is "now just a strange display with many masterpieces."

Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote that the new Barnes is " less success or failure than cautionary tale. Effective architecture, it turns out, is tougher to copy than you might guess. Even tougher is re-creating the relationship between art and the personality of the rooms where it's displayed -- a relationship that was unusually strong inside the old Barnes."

The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl managed to surprise himself by finding much to admire about the new venue. "I couldn't imagine that the integrity of the collection... would survive," he wrote. "But it does, magnificently." He also described the architectural design of the new site as "spectacular."

The New York Times' Roberta Smith counts herself among the converted. In her review, she wrote that against all odds, the new Barnes "is still very much the old Barnes, only better." In particular, the museum's lighting system makes "everything breathe in a new way."

At the hometown Philadelphia Inquirer, there have been several reviews and commentaries.

Contributing art critic Edward J Sozanski, in a qualified positive review, wrote that "The metamorphosis doesn't diminish the art, but it does significantly alter the context in which visitors encounter it, something I hadn't expected." In the new museum, Sozansky wrote, "Intimacy, the serene atmosphere of the 12-acre arboretum site and tangible references to the founder have been traded for visitor amenities and crowd capacity."

Inga Saffron, the paper's architecture critic, notedthat the "parking lot and driveways visually strangle the architecture and, worst of all, cut off the building physically from the city it is meant to serve." But once you get past the exterior, "the new Barnes succeeds in making the experience inside the new gallery a credible one."

The paper's classical music critic, Peter Dobrin, wrote: "Something important has been lost in the move. Gone now is a certain euphoria that used to come with visiting the Barnes -- the inner tingle that you have just been someplace rare and undiscovered."

But Dobrin went on to observe that "it seems clear that with new, proper lighting — not to mention windows glazed to filter out damaging ultraviolet light — both art and art lover are better off."

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