Barnes art museum looks to build on successful move

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Posted: Nov 29, 2015 11:20 AM
Barnes art museum looks to build on successful move

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — More than a million people have visited The Barnes Foundation since the art museum moved to Philadelphia from a suburb in May 2012. That's almost three times the number of visitors who saw its extensive collection in its former home in the five years before the relocation.

The foundation's leaders say that growth not only validates the contested and controversial move of the museum and its renowned collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern art, but also indicates a need for further change to build on that success.

"We're operating on a strong foundation with high visibility, great attendance, great support from staff and other quarters. This is the best time to think about how to evolve," said Thom Collins, the executive director and president. "The move was a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The end is expanded services."

In a five-year strategic plan to be made public soon, the foundation intends to reach new audiences and deepen engagement, to expand art interpretation offerings and tours, to increase its endowment, and to bolster the foundation as a research hub. It aims to complete these goals before marking its centenary in 2022.

Sylvie Patry, who will take the job as chief curator in January, noted that while the foundation is well-established in some ways, the relocation three years ago "reshuffled the cards and has opened a new chapter, with specific and new changes," she wrote in an email interview. "In this sense, the foundation has a long and rich history but is a young institution that needs to develop."

In the early 1900s, self-made millionaire Dr. Albert Barnes began buying what was then modern art, carefully building a huge collection that includes works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Seurat, among others. In 1922, he created The Barnes Foundation to display his collection in the ways he thought would best show the relationship between the paintings and other items in the rooms, like metalwork and furniture.

During his lifetime, Barnes limited access to his collection and made clear his disdain for art history and historians. After his death in 1951, his will said the works were to stay in Lower Merion, a community about 6 miles from downtown Philadelphia. The move to the city was 10 years in the making and featured legal battles and arguments over how art should be interpreted and by whom, as well as the documentary film "The Art of the Steal."

The collection's new home, on the grand Ben Franklin Parkway and near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other cultural institutions, is four times the size of the original and includes a gallery for temporary exhibitions and a concert/lecture hall. The art, however, is displayed in rooms that are almost exact replicas of the ones Barnes himself decorated in the suburbs.

The gallery space is one area that will fuel growth, Collins said. Going forward, the foundation will look to add a year-round program of changing exhibitions. These new attractions will drive repeat visitation and re-engage visitors with the permanent collection, he said.

The foundation is also seeking to widen its reach. In November, it announced that college, university and graduate students would be given free general admission on weekdays. Philadelphia educators in grades K-12 will be given free general admission on Sundays.

To further its education goals, the museum has hired Drexel University professor Martha Lucy as deputy director for education and public programs, as well as a curator. The foundation will still have tours in what is known as visual literacy education, which Barnes favored, but it will add other interpretation tours.

Patry, who comes to the foundation after 10 years at Paris' Musee d'Orsay, said the collection also offers opportunities to develop new scholarship. She would like to see it become an established reference.

"It would be the best way to perpetuate the legacy of Dr. Barnes: combining a visual and a learning experience, not cut off from life, but rooted in the interests of the present," she said. "Both historical . and contemporary art exhibitions should serve this goal."