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Barnes Foundation Launches Search for an Architect to Design Philadelphia Museum

After fits and starts, including a two-year court case, the Barnes Foundation has officially launched the search for an architect to design a new museum for its extensive art collection. Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, is assisting it in this process.

The Barnes includes a gallery and horticultural school. Currently it is housed in a 10,000-square-foot building set amid a 12-acre arboretum in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania. But local ordinances only allow for 1,200 visitors a week. By moving, the foundation hopes to increase its attendance and revenue. Plans call for a 120,000-square-foot museum located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The foundation first explored this move four years ago but faced opposition from people who wanted it to stay put (RECORD, February 2005, page 28).

As part of its architect search, the Barnes issued a request for qualifications to firms from around the world. Although he wouldn’t say how many firms it approached, Derek Gillman, the foundation’s president and executive director, explains “we sent out requests for qualifications to many different types of firms based on the quality of their work, their experience, and the integrity of their vision.”

No doubt the legacy of the foundation’s iconoclastic founder and namesake, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, will loom large over whatever these architects envision. When creating his gallery in 1922, Dr. Barnes grouped diverse artworks together and refused to add placards identifying them. Hung floor to ceiling, 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos jostle for space next to traditional African masks and Pennsylvania Dutch blankets in the intimate Paul Cret-designed galleries.

In his will, Barnes stated that the artworks were not to be changed or moved. When the foundation first voiced plans for a new facility in 2003, three former Barnes students filed suit against it, charging that the move would violate Dr. Barnes’ wishes; a court ruled against them in 2004.

In announcing the RFQ earlier this month, the Barnes promised that “to remain true to its purposes and character, the Foundation will replicate the scale, proportion and configuration of the existing galleries in the new location.” A spokesperson adds that “the new building won’t replicate the size or style—the wall ensembles will be recreated but the new space will accommodate modern museum amenities.”

The foundation hopes to announce its final architect selection by August 1, with construction beginning as early as the end of 2007. This ambitious schedule reflects the board’s eagerness to “complete this project to forward the mission of the Barnes Foundation and honor the recent donors who invested in the future of the Barnes Foundation,” Gillman says.

When asked what would become of the current facility, Gillman adds “the gallery building will serve as a research facility to house, and make accessible to scholars, the incredible archives that belong to the Barnes Foundation. The surrounding arboretum will continue to be used to teach the well-regarded horticultural program.” 

Leigh Batnick