The Parkway as Phila.’s ‘Museum Mile’

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About five years ago, when the relocation of the Barnes Foundation to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was by no means a certainty, Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, spoke off the record about a prospective move.

What would it mean to have the Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and the Barnes strung like limestone pearls on the green necklace of the Parkway? Allowing that it might be a challenge to prove, d'Harnoncourt posited that within six or so blocks "Philadelphia would have the largest concentration of French postimpressionist and modernist masterpieces outside of Paris."

Add the Barnes' 181 Renoirs to the Art Museum's 16 and that is the largest collection in the world. The Barnes' 69 Cezannes plus the museum's 16 amounts to more than there are in all of France. The Barnes owns 46 Picassos; the museum, 23. The Barnes has 59 Matisses, the museum, 15. The Barnes owns 18 Rousseaus, the museum, 10. Each institution boasts seven van Goghs.

And don't forget the 130 Rodins at the Rodin.

While some aren't sure whether the clustering of these collections will add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, the consensus is that the Barnes' relocation to the Parkway marks a tipping point in Philadelphia's cultural and civic life.

"As an urbanist I don't think it's a great idea to have three museums lined up in a row or three stadiums next to each other - there's no synergy in that," reflects Witold Rybczynski, architect, author, and University of Pennsylvania professor. "No one spends two hours in a museum, then goes down the street to spend two hours in another." For him, the notion of the Parkway as Philadelphia's Museum Mile, counterpart of New York's Fifth Avenue, where the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, and the Guggenheim are on or near the thoroughfare framing Central Park, "is pure adspeak."

But as an educator, Rybczynski is optimistic that in its Parkway location, with fewer restrictions on visitors, the Barnes can better fulfill its founder's mission as a teaching institution. He envisions it possibly evolving into a cultural and social magnet "like Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., or the Courtauld Institute in London," laboratories for scholarship and lively generators of a wide array of public programs in art, music, and horticulture.

Joseph Rishel, the Art Museum's curator of European painting before 1900, predicts that the proximity of "three institutions with great works of modernism" will make the Parkway a pilgrimage site for art lovers. "For almost a century it's been the case that all these works were all in Philadelphia, but now they will resonate on six contiguous blocks" of the thoroughfare originally conceived as the lungs connecting the city's heart with Fairmount Park.

In 1917 Jacques Gréber, the French Beaux-Arts architect and landscape designer, contributed a master plan for the Parkway that was never officially accepted and only partially realized. He would later collaborate with Paul Cret, another graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts, on the building and gardens of the Rodin Museum (now being renovated and spruced up for reopening in late spring).

Their ideas about the relationship between man and his natural environment echo those of the postimpressionists, who were concerned with how the human eye experiences nature. The ideals of the designers of the Parkway and its institutions complemented those of Albert C. Barnes and the painters of the masterpieces in his foundation's galleries. All believed that art and nature could transform lives.

Seizing upon this motif, Rishel has organized "Visions of Arcadia," an Art Museum exhibition that will be on view from June 20 to Sept. 3. With works by Gauguin, Cezanne, and Matisse borrowed from other collections, "Arcadia" will amplify the pastoral themes vibrating through Matisse and Cezanne works at the museum and the Barnes.

For David Brownlee, the University of Pennsylvania art historian who wrote the book on the history of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Barnes relocation "is much bigger than French art." It's about how art and nature can transform cities, about how the 20th-century visions of the Parkway are being redefined and repurposed for the 21st.

"Gréber imagined the Parkway as an axis from City Hall to the park, embroidered with the fretwork of small gardens," says Brownlee. The beauty of the Gréber plan was in how "it connected the grid city to the curvilinear, natural park by means of a diagonal thoroughfare." During the late 1920s, the Art Museum and the Rodin Museum were built on the Parkway, followed by the Free Library, Municipal Court, and the Franklin Institute. "The Parkway was sketched out but not completed," says Brownlee.

"On the one hand," he continues, "the Barnes relocation underlines the fact that Philadelphia cultural leaders of the 1920s, such as the Museum of Art's Fiske Kimball, Dr. Barnes, and the orchestra's Leopold Stokowski made Philadelphia an important cultural center when the city was the world's manufacturing capital, and we are recapturing this cultural legacy."

And on the other, "over the last 15 years as we have witnessed the city reimagine itself as a postindustrial city of 'eds and meds' and culture, bringing the Barnes onto the Parkway thwacks us collectively on the forehead and refocuses us to look at the Parkway as the 21st-century fulfillment of that late-19th-century vision."

Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., tells it this way: "Almost a hundred years ago, the city built a boulevard that became a highway. Over the years buildings went up on it. More recently a constellation of organizations have activated it. It's been relighted, replanted, populated with cafes and bicyclists. I look at it and think, we have a mile that is no longer a highway but a boulevard with people strolling on it."

"And I think, surely this was what was originally intended."

 


Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com. Read her work at http://www.carrierickey.com.