Barnes move to Parkway is progress, but a quirky something has been lost

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When Judge Stanley R. Ott ruled in 2004 that the Barnes Foundation’s collection of paintings and sculpture, worth billions, could be extracted from its Merion home and remounted in a new building downtown, the Barnes set out to replicate the original galleries, in scale and configuration, exactly.

This much now is an accomplished fact. And yet, as the new Barnes Foundation opens this weekend, everything is different.

Gone forever, of course, is any claim to authenticity. Whatever the Barnes of 2012 and beyond becomes, visitors will never again have the same fully prescribed experience, the powerful feeling of being led around the museum by the hand of its founder.

Current Barnes leaders are careful not to use that word: museum. They call the new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway a campus. The Barnes, however, is a collection of art that the general public may see, at generously set hours, in exchange for the payment of money. That is what is universally recognized as a museum — something different from what the Barnes started out being. McBarnes, its most indignant critics are calling it.

A control freak in life, Albert C. Barnes has become, in death, a mute supplicant to the will of others and the art world’s most conspicuous martyr to the commercialization of the modern art museum. 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, undiscovered.

Progress, however, argues its case persuasively. Though the Barnes was never really far from downtown and the veneer of exclusive admittance was more reputation than reality, what the city now has is a fully functional museum — an institution that, in countenance and by expectation, wants your business. The new Barnes is the concretization of a widely accepted golden rule of art in our time: that the highest calling of art correlates directly to the number of people seeing it. 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.

Other changes are promising. Architecture is always subjective, but some of the city’s best thinker-architects say the Barnes, designed by the New York firm of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, may be the most significant new public building to open in the city since the PSFS Building in 1932. The setting is four times the size of the old Barnes, putting space around the galleries in the form of a grand central court and other public-function rooms, while punctuating the experience with light and air. In terms of amenities, the new Barnes has the traditional comforts now expected: places to rest and reflect, a roomy changing-exhibitions gallery, a lecture/concert hall, a restaurant and a coffee bar, and the enticements of a well-stocked gift shop.

The move also means a lot to the fortunes of the city, at least if the Barnes has the resources and smarts to market itself well. With this opening, city and tourism leaders perceive a greater opportunity to promote downtown Philadelphia as a destination. The mantra in local tourism circles is that 25 percent of the U.S. population lives within a five-hour drive of Philadelphia. Culture and history beckon. Independence Hall! One of the world’s great orchestras! With one more reason to visit Philadelphia, why wouldn’t you want to hop in the car and buy a few room nights?

Paradoxically, though, the repackaging of the Barnes may also be seen as the latest in a string of changes to Philadelphia that dilute its special character — advancements that bring Philadelphia into conformity with what visitors from other places may expect, but that also render the city more generic.

The mirage of progress has claimed significant victims in recent years, often unexpectedly. The Philadelphia Orchestra started pining for a new home just a few years after it came into being, in 1900, in the Academy of Music. The orchestra spent nearly a century of intermittent campaigning, finally getting its wish in 2001. Intellectually, the rationales were indisputable — that an arts district with a new hall at its core would be a major magnet for downtown, and that it was absurd to have to travel to other cities to hear the orchestra in a great hall.

Philadelphians, though, deal with change glacially. A decade later, there’s no dispute about Verizon Hall’s superior acoustics. And yet the move did nothing to arrest the decline in attendance — or the public’s love for the Academy as the only authentic setting for the orchestra. Ensemble and building are still one in the hearts of many orchestra fans. The orchestra is now exploring ways to get back into the Academy more often.

All that planning, and that stumping, all those marketing studies — and no one heeded the fact that for many, a night at the orchestra wasn’t simply a transaction of bringing the orchestra’s sound faithfully to the listener. Something more elusive was at work.

At the new Barnes, you’ll have more and better access to its ironwork, furniture, African sculpture, and canvases by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir, and Soutine. But is there something less easily quantified that has accounted for the Barnes’ allure all these years? Will an antique experience translate into the modern vernacular?

The proposal to build taller than City Hall raised a huge ruckus in the 1980s. The outcome was probably inevitable — real estate abhors a vacuum, even when it’s above Billy Penn’s brim — but the city lost its unique status as lone holdout to the power of developers and the chance to make a buck.

There’s something comforting about living in a city that takes character seriously. Sometimes, the citizenry has managed to worry change into submission. When the Pennsylvania Convention Center was being planned and built and the Reading Terminal Market renovated, architects and civic guardians worried that new would overrun old, that the market would become a fast-food court catering to conventioneers. The proportion of prepared- to fresh-food vendors was affirmed, and today fresh food flourishes at the market. Evolution was accommodated.

City boosters may dismiss these matters as frivolous; anyone sensitive to the soul of a place can’t be so sure.

Sometimes, it just takes this history-proud city extra time to digest change. Any number of Philadelphians will still occasionally refer, in a charming slip of the tongue, to something they’ve just read in the Bulletin. The newspaper folded in 1982, but in Philadelphia, nearly everybody remembers the Bulletin. Inexorably, new generations will layer fresh cultural strata over old, and someday no one will think of the Academy of Music as the rightful home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It should be right around the time you’ll hear one art lover saying to another while moving among an incomparable — if measurably less quirky — collection of Cézannes and Renoirs on the Parkway: “The Barnes used to be in Merion? Really?”

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/.