The occasion, the ground-breaking last Friday of the foundation's new $150-million home at the Parkway and 21st Street, was festooned with local arts glitterati, business and fund-raising mandarins, and political grandees who spent their time, before a crowd of about 200, congratulating themselves with more alacrity than an out-of-control Oscar recipient.
Gillman, formerly of the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts and now the Barnes' well-respected new director, presided. The Lincoln University Concert Choir sang. The gaggle of notables, donning gold-colored construction helmets, acquitted themselves in the customary manner with shovels with silver-colored blades, and everyone drank coffee from power hotel Four Seasons.
The high-octane morning brew didn't seem to do much for Mayor Michael Nutter, usually known for flip quips and humorous zingers, who just dead-panned his delivery on how the Barnes on the Parkway will be 'one of the greatest museums in the world, and it will be right here in Philadelphia.' Actually, Nutter was funny, unitentionally, when he went on to praise the great works of largely French Impressionism in the Barnes' collection, now located in Lower Merion. 'I'm not an art expert,' the mayor said earnestly. 'But I know great art when I see it.'
It was that kind of event. Weird.
How weird? Well, when I walked through the gantlet of protesters, picketing on 21st Street, one shouted at me:'Here's another rich guy.' How weird is that?
The hour-long ground-breaking, housed under a Cirque-de-Soleil-sized tent, also unearthed some old wounds, namely the anger and frustration expressed by the protesters, coalesced around a group called the Friends of the Barnes, that Dr. Barnes posthumous wishes, will, and sensibility were being violated once again by Philadelphia's rich and powerful.
No doubt, there's substance to their lament. The late Anne d'Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Rebecca Rimel, president of the local Pew Charitable Trusts, have been said to have almost decreed that the move would happen. Interestingly, as well, the cri de coeur of the Barnes opponents has been picked up by some New York art critics, notably those from The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Still, it's hard to side when protests are self-selective. Breaking bequests isn't new to Philadelphia. Was anyone complaining when Stephen Girard's Will creating his eponymous college for orphaned white boys was amended from its racist, sexist constraints? And were the New York critics howling when the Museum of Modern Art got a controversial redo a few years back?
Moreover, according to Bernard C. Watson, chairman of the Barnes Foundation board, who also spoke Friday, it was actually the didactic Dr. Barnes himself, the fabulously rich inventor of a patent medicine, who provided in his will a loop-hole that allows the Barnes to move. It was the 'broke' clause. And, Watson said, the Barnes in Lower Merion was dead broke.
Still, amid the back-slapping, defense of the move, and schmoozing (everyone seemed to know everyone), one hero of the moment, Billie Tsien, the new Barnes' architect, seemed to get overlooked.
I asked a cheery PR honcho where she might be. 'I have no idea where she is,' he said plaintively. 'She's here somewhere. She's a very short Asian woman with her husband, a very tall man.'
With such helpful, but hopeless advice, I never connected with Tsien, a principal in the New York-based firm, Tod Williams Bille Tsein Architects. (Tod Williams, incidentaly, was the 'very tall man.')
Ironcially, as Tsien was going mostly unrecognized under the Barnes' Big Top, she was actually getting star billing at the Moore College of Art and Design nearby on Logan Square. She and Nancy Kolb, head of the Please Touch Museum, now located in brillantly remodeled Memorial Hall, were both being honored as Moore's 2009 Visionary Woman Award winners for their 'significant role in envisioning the transformation of space for major museums' and 'leaving an enduring mark on Philadelphia.'
The college's ongoing installation includes photos and models of Tsien's ouevre.
Overall, Tsien's Barnes probably won't be as breathtaking as her American Folk Art Museum in New York, which received the 2002 Arup World Architecture award for Best Building in the World. But, to my mind, at least, it certainly will be equal in creative concepts to her Skirkanich Hall at Penn. This, especially, since imposed guidelines required Tsien to model her Barnes on some existing architectural and spacial themes of the old building.
Among major design points for the new building, Tsien explained in the Moore exhibit, will be a facade mixture of 'warm grey gold stone interspersed with metal.' And, 'Referring to the Kente cloth of West Africa, we are trying to create a "weave" of materials that will give the building a sense of richness and complexity.'
What did the Big Apple critics think of the newly-announced design? Again -- now, almost predictably -- they hated it.