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Stifling debate about the BarnesBY: Victoria Skelly 10.18.2009
Having attended the Philadelphia Art Commission’s official unveiling of the plans for the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I am still in a state of amazed anger over this situation, which is coming to resemble something out of a Kafka novel.
‘Whom can I complain to about the Barnes?’
It has been a week since I attended the Philadelphia Art Commission’s official unveiling of the plans for the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and I am still in a state of amazed anger over this situation, which is coming to resemble something out of a Kafka novel.
The Art Commission presentation was opened to the public at the last minute. But from the get-go, attendees were told that no questions might be asked of the architects and the Art Commission members; only comments, less than two minutes in duration, would be tolerated. Those with placards protesting the move of the Barnes Foundation were given the choice of either showing their signs to the audience or giving their two minutes’ worth of protest.
No questions of substance were raised by the Art Commission members. Their vote was swift and unanimous, according to what appeared to be the plan.
A question without an answer
One attendee attempted to ask a question during his allotted two-minute comment period: “Whom can I go to in order to complain about this?” His question was met with a stony silence. I wonder if indeed any of the Commission members really know just who possesses the authority to stop this foolish waste of resources on what the New York Times architecture critic, Nicholas Ouroussof, has referred to as Philadelphia’s “planned building of guilt.”
So where does the buck stop with this Barnes situation? Who is accountable? The support and argument in favor of the Barnes Foundation’s move from Merion to the Parkway has been less than spirited from city officials to the Foundation’s officials to the venture’s three major foundation donors (Pew, Lenfest and Annenberg).
Indeed, these parties have fallen silent on the subject of the rationale for the move, in face of overwhelming long-term dissent from critics around the world and the populace at large. Asked by the Inquirer to respond to assertions in the film, The Art of the Steal, that she worked behind the scenes to wrest the Barnes collection from its Merion home, the Pew’s president, Rebecca Rimel, released this disingenuous statement: “I have not seen the film, therefore I am uninformed and it would be inappropriate for me to comment.” Derek Gillman, the Barnes Foundation’s executive director, did see the film but responded equally disingenuously: “As a piece of technical film-making…. I thought it was well-done,” he told the Inquirer. “But I don’t think there was any new information in it… I didn’t hear any new allegations….The story has been out there for quite the while…”
In the wake of such non-response responses, public relations spokespersons have been left to manipulate the passage of this project through what appear to be cursory rubber stamp procedures.
The Inky vs. the L.A. Times
Where have the Philadelphia media been (with a few brave exceptions, like the Inquirer’s Ed Sozanski) while this Barnes fiasco has evolved? Why did the Los Angeles Times print Philadelphia based architect Robert Venturi’s recent open letter of protest of this move while the Inquirer did not? At the recent Art Commission meeting, the reporters from Channel 6 Action News and KYW Radio seemed to go out of their way to ignore substantive arguments and consequently to avoid the key question the Art Commission should have debated: Even if the Barnes Foundation’s proposed move to the Parkway could be justified on financial, economic, legal or educational grounds, does this proposed building design fit its Parkway location?
Where the neighboring structures are all neoclassically styled, a Barnes Foundation building that at least gives a nod to that style (and whose entryway actually faces the grand Parkway) would have been more appropriate. No amount of “sound proofing” ivy and decibel-crunching hedgery enshrouding this boxy contemporary-styled box of a building will convert a noisy city site to a Zen garden of art. Albert Barnes so loved the curved line, and there are so few of them here… from the rectangle water pools and angled pathways, to the L-shaped construction, lightcapped with an oblong. Renoirs and Cézannes, in those handcarved richly gold frames, just don’t belong here.
Nor does this planned garden in the city bear any relationship to Albert Barnes’s gardens at Merion, with its serpentine and curved lines, and its stepped “rooms” that relate to paintings in the galleries. Where will the tall trees of Merion (taller than those London planes on the Parkway!), the rustic cottage by the pond, and the woodland garden— an intimate element of the Merion complex— be found in the new design?
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