Imagine wandering around an estate in the green suburbs of Lower Merion, an affluent neighborhood just outside of Philadelphia. Every inch of every wall is covered in art from floor to ceiling. Paintings that would not be out of place at the Louvre or the Met are intimately propped above fireplaces and hung along staircases.
Unlike its larger more well-known counterparts, there are no crowds or lines, no distance between the art and the visitor, like wandering around someone’s home. Turn a corner and find a wall filled with paintings by Monet, beside it a half dozen Van Goghs, with a couple of Picassos thrown in for good measure. This continues for room after room, floor after floor. Welcome to the Barnes Museum.
Whereas many museums may boast a dozen Reniors, chemist Dr. Albert Barnes collected 181. Originally conceived as a school, rather than a public space to view art, the Barnes Foundation consisted of an extravagant collection of modern and post-impressionist works for the benefit of its students. The Barnes Foundation became a secluded space for young artists to study great art in a private home-like setting. In order to insure that the foundation would keep the needs of the school its highest priority, Barnes drew up a trust mandating that the $25 billion collection could never be loaned out, that public access would be limited, and that the art must stay in the Lower Merion property.
This mandate became a subject of great controversy in the early 2000s. The debate over whether it is appropriate to hold such important pieces of art in this suburban neighborhood, with limited public access, continues to this day. However, the courts ultimately made the contentious decision to begin moving pieces to a new urban location near the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2004. Though the ruling has been disputed many times, the bottom line is that the Barnes Museum, which Matisse once called the only sane place to view art in America, sadly has limited time left. For those who can, try to experience this rare space while it still exists.
Update 2016: The Barnes collection has moved to a new building at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. The Marion location still is open as an arboretum.