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Barnes art collection nears final days at old home

After nearly a decade of lawsuits and bitter debate, the world famous Barnes art collection is about to move from its original wooded, suburban setting outside Philadelphia to a bustling boulevard in the city's cultural district.
/ Source: Reuters

After nearly a decade of lawsuits and bitter debate, the world famous Barnes art collection is about to move from its original wooded, suburban setting outside Philadelphia to a bustling boulevard in the city's cultural district.

Workmen are still busy constructing the Barnes' new, modern building in an area of Philadelphia known as Center City that is home to government offices, shops, museums and open-air spaces modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Once it debuts in spring 2012, the new home is expected to cost $150 million, including expenses to move the collection.

The Barnes, named after Philadelphia physician Albert Barnes, who died in 1951, contains some 800 paintings by famous artists including 181 pieces from Renoir and 69 by Cezanne. The Barnes Foundation, which controls the collection, believes the paintings constitute one of the world's great collections of French impressionist, post impressionist and modern art.

But the Barnes' move from its stately mansion in Merion, a suburb that some civic leaders thought was inconvenient for tourists, has not come without a lot of complaints, and some recent visitors believe it should stay at its original home.

The collection's final day there is set for July 3.

"I am going to miss this so much," said Lynne Rosenbaum, of Marlton, N.J. "I think this is one of the jewels in the museum world," adding that she was "very upset" at the move.

Nearly a decade of litigation has taken place since the change was made public, and a largely critical documentary film, "The Art of the Steal," was released in 2010.

In fact, the legal wrangling has not quite ended. A further court hearing is scheduled for August at which a group called The Friends of the Barnes will ask the court, once again, to order the collection to remain in Merion forever, upholding the terms of Dr. Barnes's will.

But Barnes' watchers believe the odds are against the group because Judge Samuel Ott, who will rule on the suit, has previously decided it could move. So, many Barnes' lovers have been making the trek to Merion one last time in recent weeks.

"For the last two months, we've been packed," said Barnes docent Hildy Jaffe, as she stood in the doorway of the facility's biggest display room with dozens of paintings, including the Card Players by Cezanne that is one of the most popular at the Barnes.

The room famously features a 47-foot long mural called The Dance II by Henri Matisse that dominates the arches on one side of the main gallery.


The new building sits on 4.5 acres in Center City that also is home to the famous Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art several blocks away.

It is decidedly modern, but does retain a few architectural features that are strongly reminiscent of the Merion mansion, a 1922 structure made of French limestone. The new building's facade is done in a similar Israeli limestone, according to project director William W. McDowell III.

The interior might seem familiar to visitors, McDowell said, during a walking tour in which he dodged construction workers and wheel barrows.

The main gallery is nearly identical to the one in Merion, he said. The rooms are the same size, the paintings will be hung in familiar positions, and even the white oak floors will be reminiscent of Merion.

The new facility is bigger, though, because it includes additional gallery space for temporary exhibits of borrowed paintings, plus larger meeting rooms and a bigger library.

The 23-room Merion mansion, which sits amid a well-to-do residential neighborhood, will continue to be used as a training facility for those interested in another fascination of Dr. Barnes, horticulture.

It will house classrooms for those wanting to learn more about the plants and trees in the 12-acre arboretum that surrounds the building. It will also house Barnes' offices and perhaps an archive of thousands of Barnes' documents.

Meanwhile, officials at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. are looking forward to next spring when the new facility is scheduled to open.

"I think it will encourage more (hotel) stays," said Meryl Levitz, president of the corporation.

Aside from the art, she said that "Physically, (the facility) is just so beautiful."

The corporation, however, has no forecasts as to how many more visitors the Barnes might draw to Center City, and Levitz knows of no studies done by others, either.