By Chris Murray
Despite being a multi-millionaire who was educated in the fine arts, Dr. Albert Barnes never bought into the idea that the appreciation of art was the sole domain of the rich and powerful.
Barnes wanted the poor and working class, regardless of race, to appreciate the beauty of artists like Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. To make sure this happened, Barnes would often put his money where his mouth was…literally.
“He started doing something that was very enlightened for an industrialist in the early 20th Century,” said Derek Gillman, executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation. “He stopped the working hours two hours early and actually had classes in the factory. So he has this idea from the beginning of the (20th) Century of taking people who didn’t have the opportunity for a higher education or even a secondary education and saying this is really important.”
Bringing the great works of art to the masses of Philadelphians is what the new Barnes Foundation is looking to do with its new state of the art facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which will be the new home of Dr. Barnes’ world renown collection of art. The new $150 million facility opened its doors to the general public on Friday, May 18.
After years of being in located in Merion and restricted to small tours, members of the Barnes Foundation believe that the new location will carry out Barnes dream of making his extraordinary art collection available to the masses.
“We’re carrying out Dr. Barnes wishes in having art available to he called the ‘plain people’,” said Bernard Watson, chairman of the Barnes Foundation’s Board of Directors. “Those are the people who get up and go to work in the factories and offices in Philadelphia. We’re delighted to be here in this new facility.”
Judge Jacquelyn Brown, a board member and secretary of the Barnes Foundation, said giving exposure to people who have never experienced the great works of Art is the most important aspect of the Barnes Museum being in the city of Philadelphia
“The one thing that this collection on the Parkway provides is access to a much larger audience of citizens,” Brown said. “[It will give] African-Americans and others worldwide the chance to appreciate the collection and what Barnes was about when he collected this art with a clear view to educate to widen our lives and experiences. Art can do that.”
In addition to being the home of Barnes collection of Impressionist and post-Impression, Modern Art and African sculpture, the new facility will house several educational programs for students and adults regardless of grade level in state of the art classrooms through its partnership with the School District of Philadelphia.
“We really have to be aggressive in not only saying that we’re accessible, but removing the barriers that people might foresee in coming downtown,” said Blake Bradford, director of educational programs at the Barnes Foundation. “It’s one thing to be on a school bus and you come here. But how do we get that same kid to bring his family here? We’re in the cultural center and the community center of Philadelphia.”
Also included in its educational program is the Barnes Foundation’s longtime partnership with Lincoln University. The Foundation offers students a joint degree in the visual arts. It also has a partnership with Lincoln University’s education department, offering graduate courses for Lincoln students and practicing teachers.
Watson said the Barnes Foundation will also find ways through corporate sponsorship and grants to help find ways to provide tickets to the Foundation’s galleries for low income and working class people.
“One of the ways to do that is to get money to support people who can’t afford it in grants,” Watson said. “It’s been done before. We had the famous treasures of Nigeria at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was the Chairman of that group. We found ways to subsidize people to come and see it who could not afford do it. A number of places helped us to do it. We have to be inventive and creative to find ways to help people who could not normally afford to do it.”
Barnes, who died 1951, was very passionate about being involved in the Civil Rights and very committed to helping the African-American community at a time when it wasn’t popular to do so.
“He was ahead of his time, he had very different views,” Watson said. “He was diametrically opposed to the art community. He felt that ordinary people could understand art and be exposed to art. More importantly, he said that it was more important for democracy for ordinary to have exposure to the great arts. He also had correspondences with Alain Locke at Howard University. He had correspondences with the leading African-American thinkers like DuBois.”
Located at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Foundation is within walking distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum. The 93,000-square-foot building was designed by architects Tod Williams and Bille Tschien, who conceived as “a gallery within a garden and a garden within a gallery.” It is set within a four-acre site designed by OLIN, which has studios in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.