Last month—opening the latest chapter in the idiosyncratic institution’s litigious recent history—the Barnes Foundation issued a request for qualifications, beginning the search for an architect to build a new facility in Philadelphia’s Center City. The institution hopes to break ground on the project by the end of the year.
According to foundation executive director and president Derek Gillman, the recipients of the RFQ—an undisclosed group of architecture firms from around the world—“span a wide range of ways of working and range from household names to emerging practitioners.” The same announcement named Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, as an advisor to the design selection process. The foundation’s collection will be relocated from suburban Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, to the new downtown location.
Albert C. Barnes established his foundation as a place for education in and appreciation of the fine arts. Sited in a 12-acre arboretum, the 1925 gallery, designed by French architect Paul Philippe Cret, houses an extensive roster of paintings by impressionist and early modern masters, including Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, and Modigliani. Barnes’ singular vision is apparent in the arrangement of the picture galleries: Works are grouped together aesthetically rather than historically, and periods, cultures, and media are mixed. Over the years two factors have conspired to maintain the intimate, cloister-like setting: Barnes’ original directive required that the collection remain in Lower Merion, while the township’s zoning laws have limited the number of visitors to 400 a day, three days per week. In 2002 the foundation lobbied the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court to allow the gallery to relocate to a site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, arguing that potential funders would be more generous if the institution were more open to the public. “The move to Parkway is a means for the Barnes to survive,” explained Gillman. “People will give philanthropically when it is in Philadelphia, as opposed to being constrained in Merion.” Despite cries of protest from former students and neighbors, the court approved the move in 2004.
The City of Philadelphia provided the high profile Benjamin Franklin Parkway address; the foundation’s new 120,000-square-foot structure will occupy a site currently home to the Youth Studies Center, a juvenile detention facility scheduled to move to a new building in West Philadelphia. While the court order requires the architects to replicate the quirky galleries of Merion in the new location, the move will mean more than opening the doors to more visitors and making the collection accessible to a demographic unable to score a reservation or make the 8-mile trip to Merion. The Barnes plans also to broaden its educational scope, becoming more like a traditional museum in the process. According to Gillman, the move is in line with the institution’s founding principles. “I am not thinking about the new building in the sense of the urban landscape, but I am thinking about the experience of the collection,” he said. “I am less concerned about the downtown and more concerned about the people. While I am interested in the urban condition, the mission of the foundation is to make people think about the art.”