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Thursday, 6 May 2010

Barnes Joins 'Culture Gulch'

Albert Barnes, above
Sarkozy to be Keynoter at Inaugral?
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer Bio
French President Nicolas Sarkozy? Word that Sarkozy has been been tapped as the keynote speaker for the inaugural opening of the new Barnes Foundation in 2012 was the hot rumor on the Avenue of the Arts, Parkway division, early this week. Well, why not?

What with $25-billion -- yes, billion -- worth of French-created, or inspired art by the likes of Mattisse, Renoir, Modigliani, Soutine, and others, a tip of the beret, recognizing the Barnes' move from suburban Lower Merion, to Center City sort of makes sense. Also, it makes things interesting.

Sure, building of new museum, at 21st Street, is apace. Even some of the foundation's administrative arm has moved downtown, now ensconced across the street from the construction site in the former home of the Philadelphia School District, now a multi-use facility.

And thanks to the Foundation's website, interested parties can also keep visually au courant with building progress. Yes, the foundation has installed a Parkway Webcam, updated every 15 minutes. It's something like watching water boil. Substitute water for a spade digging a hole.

Ahem, boring. 

There's more. Mix the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the foundation's arts guru Derek Gillman, and the irascible curmudgeon Dr. Albert Barnes, the late, great nemesis of the once-powerful Philadelphia Establishment and the good doctor's pet-peeve, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and, of course, you have the ongoing makings of the Barnes Foundation museum kabuki.

On the heels of The Art of the Steal, the anti-move crowd's cinemac screed against the foundation's neighborhood relocation, only, again, one word comes to mind: 'Boring.' Yawn.
Welcome to Phiadelphia's great new 'Culture Gulch,' where the Barnes is settling in nicely, thank you very much, as the latest addition to the city's other 'Avenue of the Arts,' already topped off with such cultural meccas as the Academy of the Natural Sciences, the Moore College of Art and Design, the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, and at the top of the Parkway, the Big Guy, the Jewel in the Crown, the Art Museum.
Day by day, at the corner of 21st Street, it's the city's most culture-vulture public building project, a 'Barnes raising' like no other. Sorry, Albert. Your 'playpen' has, too, gone all Establishment.
The last time I checked, officially, that is, on the Barnes' building progress was at its ground-breaking, back in November, 2009.
Oh, yes, at that time, don't forget to stir in about 20 protesters, notable for their creative signage ('Crime Scene Do Not Enter') and their Dr. Barnes-like enmity for anyone who'd violate Barnes' sacred memory -- and will.

The occasion 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 of the Fine Arts --that museum just down the Parkway at Broad --- and now the Barnes' well-respected new director, presided. The Lincoln University Concert Choir sang. A 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, when he went on to praise the great works of largely French Impressionism in the Barnes' collection. 'I'm not an art expert,' Hizzoner said earnestly. 'But I know great art when I see it.'
It was that kind of 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 event, 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 argues that Dr. Barnes posthumous wishes, will, and sensibility were being violated once again by Philadelphia's rich and powerful.
There's substance to their lament. The Art Museum's late ditector, Anne d'Harnoncourt , and Rebecca Rimel, president of the local Pew Charitable Trusts, have been said to have almost decreed that the move would happen. The Barnes opponents cri de coeur 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 with self-selective protests. 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?

Anyway, according to Bernard C. Watson, chairman of the Barnes Foundation board, 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 have no idea where she is,' a cheery PR honcho told me. '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, incidentally, was the 'very tall man.')

Ironically, as Tsien was going mostly unrecognized under the Barnes' Big Top, she was actually getting star billing at the Moore College at nearby on Logan Square. She and Nancy Kolb, head of the Please Touch Museum, now located in brilliantly remodeled Memorial Hall -- the Art Museum's first home, incidentally --were both being honored as Moore's 2009 Visionary Woman Award winners for their significant role in transforming museum space 'leaving an enduring mark on Philadelphia.'

Overall, Tsien's Barnes 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 then-newly-announced design? Again -- now, almost predictably --they hated it.
They might even hate Sarkozy showing up.
Though by the end of this week, that seemed increasingly unlikely.
After considerable telephone tag, French government officials couldn't be reached.
But I did contact the foundation's well-respected PR guy, Andrew Stewart, who's known for his candor.
'I'd love it. He'd be a person of interest,' Stewart said. 'But there's nothing official. I know nothing about it.'