Famed art collection to open in new Philadelphia home

PHILADELPHIA Thu May 17, 2012 6:02am EDT

File illustration of the new Barnes Foundation building on Philadelphia's Benjamin Frankline Parkway. REUTERS/Barnes Foundation/Handout

File illustration of the new Barnes Foundation building on Philadelphia's Benjamin Frankline Parkway.

Credit: Reuters/Barnes Foundation/Handout

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Barnes collection, with more than 4,000 works of art including paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh and Cezanne, opens at its new home on Saturday in Philadelphia's cultural center.

The opening in the modern $150 million facility on a 4.5-acre (1.8-hectare) site comes after a nearly decade-long fight over the move from its historic home in a suburb outside the city.

"This is a world-class collection and we decided to give it a world-class home," Joseph Neubauer, vice chairman of the board of The Barnes Foundation, said on Wednesday. "The pictures have never had a better home than they have today."

The new site in Philadelphia's Center City with its offices, shops and open spaces is in sharp contrast to the collection's historic home in a stately mansion in suburban Merion, which some civic leaders thought was too far away to attract tourists.

Neubauer said he expects attendance at the new facility, which is paid for and sits on land donated by the city, to quadruple from the 60,000 annual visitors in Merion to as many as 250,000.

The Barnes collection is named after Philadelphia doctor Albert Barnes, who died in 1951. The Barnes Foundation, which controls it, says the paintings constitute one of the world's great collections of French impressionist, post impressionist and modern art.

Among its treasures are 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, seven by Van Gogh and 59 by Henri Matisse, including a three-panel work called "The Dance" that stretches across several feet of archways in the building's most prominent exhibit space.

Museum officials said the rooms inside the new facility are almost exactly the same as the 23 rooms at the Merion location, and the placement of the paintings and other works is nearly identical as well.

"Whenever possible we went to the 16th or 8th of an inch," said art handler Tim Giershick.

Nancy Leeman, who was in charge of moving the paintings, furniture, sculptures and metal work, said 700 paintings were among more than 4,000 works of art taken to the new site.

"In Merion, it was a destination, and those who were interested found a way to get there," said John Gatti who is on the faculty of the institution. "We're hoping that more people will have great access to the collection.

The relocation follows an acrimonious battle documented in the film "The Art of the Steal." Critics say the move goes against Barnes' wishes to keep the collection in Merion.

Half a dozen people demonstrated outside the new building carrying banners saying "So sorry Dr. Barnes," and "Barnes and Barnum, together at last."

"Our job is to educate the public about what the history of the controversy has actually been," said one demonstrator Evelyn Yaari, of suburban Bala Cynwyd.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Xavier Briand)