Surrounded by the great squares of scored limestone quarried from the Negev Desert and now gracing the walls of the light court of the Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city's business, political, social and civic elite gathered Thursday evening to honor two of their own: Joe Neubauer and Aileen Roberts, winners of this year's Philadelphia Award.
Neubauer, who just stepped down as chief executive of Aramark Corp., the food services giant, and Roberts, a philanthropist trained as a landscape architect, were instrumental in bringing the Barnes Foundation to Philadelphia from its original and only home on 12 arboreal acres in Merion.
In doing so, at least in the minds of those supportive of the move — and they are a growing cohort — these two leaders transformed a small section of the Parkway and the city into one of the world's greatest confluences of early modernist art. From the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Rodin Museum and now the Barnes, the Parkway sets the gold standard for late-19th-century and early-20th-century European post-impressionist collections.
Susan Sherman, chair of the Philadelphia Award trustees, who administer the award established by Ladies Home Journal editor Edward Bok in 1921, said the herculean effort to move the Barnes, which stretched over a decade and involved literally thousands of workers, fund-raisers, business leaders, designers, craftspeople and generous volunteers and donors, was the quintessential "iconic effort."
"It opened the collection to the public that Albert Barnes [the foundation's progenitor] was talking about" when he spoke of art education for the "plain people," Sherman said.
Sherman said the board of the award believed nothing even came close in civic significance when the trustees considered who should be this year's recipients. The award winners helped to move the collection, which faced severe financial and other issues in its original home (for one, Barnes died in 1951 and stipulated his collection should not be moved).
Neubauer, a precise man who refers to himself as a "business leader," was captivated early on by the potential of the Barnes in Philadelphia and said he was impressed by the Barnes trustees who looked into the financial abyss — "the building in Merion could not be sustained" — and "took the courageous step necessary" to seek approval from the courts to uproot the collection and move it five miles to Philadelphia.
Neubauer played a key role leading the drive to raise the $200 million necessary to pull off the move, and told the 500 or so members of his appreciative audience that the Barnes came in "on time and on budget."
"This campus is debt free and with the biggest endowment" in Barnes history, he said. "But — there is always a but — we have to raise more money" and he suggested that checks would be accepted. (A joke? Or was it?)
Roberts, who has had a career in banking, joined the Barnes trustees after Montgomery Orphans' Court approved expansion of the foundation's board. This head of the building committee said her husband, Brian, CEO of Comcast Corp., eventually pleaded with her to discuss something other than the details of the new building. She took him along on a tour of about 50 recently constructed European museums, and he listened to her analyze the merits of about 100 architects considered for the project before she and her committee recommended Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects for the job.
She even traveled to Israel and pondered rocks — the limestone she settled on, now etched, graces the gallery walls.
Roberts poured herself into the work. "For me, it was the art and knowing that this was going to be an incredibly important project, not just for now, but for future generations," she said before the ceremony. "At the same time, it was very scary. Look at all the naysayers there have been."