Art and Soul of America's Birthplace ; the City of Brotherly Love Is Home to Some of the USA's Finest Art Galleries and Its Oldest Natural History Museum. It's Also Where the Constitution Was Drafted. by Chris Coplans
Coplans, Chris, The Evening Standard (London, England)
How do you move $30bn-worth of art six miles without it getting stolen? When the Barnes Foundation controversially moved its collection from its rather inaccessible suburban mansion to its sparkling new city-centre "campus" on Philadelphia's Cultural Corridor earlier this year, even the directors and curators were kept out of the loop, such was the fear of hijack or heist.
The largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world was amassed by the pharmaceutical magnate Albert C Barnes. From the collector's point of view, the artworks should never have been moved in the first place. He had a deep-rooted hatred of what he saw as an "elitist" Philadelphia art establishment.
His collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos, not to mention a few Titians, El Grecos and Tintorettos -- and he tried hard to ensure that, even after he died, "they" would never get their paws on his prized collection. But Barnes's loss is the City of Brotherly Love's gain, as Philly (no one calls it Philadelphia) can now be counted as one of the world's leading art and cultural destinations.
It took a sequence of judicial battles to make this happen. As stipulated by the courts, the architects have recreated the original rooms from the Merion mansion but transformed the viewing experience with the addition of skylights and the use of state-of-theart light- filtering technology. Gone is the gloom of the original house. Now, the vibrant Renoirs dazzle and dance, the Cezannes seduce and dominate, and the specially commissioned Matisse triptych mural, The Dance II, playfully illuminates the wall above the oversized Palladian windows. I was instantly bewitched, any reservations about moving the collection dissolving in this new-found light. The way Barnes insisted that his collection be hung -- cheek by jowl, with masterpieces stacked one above another -- means the intensity of the experience is almost overpowering.
I staggered out, visually intoxicated, onto the adjoining Logan Square, which is actually a rather grand French circle. Here I recuperated in a delightful little cafe, Milk & Honey, in the newly created Sister Cities Park on the edge of the circle.
The relocation of the Barnes collection has created one of America's most concentrated and impressive boulevards of art. On this leafy section of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, modelled on the Champs-Elysees, the Barnes' next-door neighbour is the Rodin Museum, which has just undergone a massive refurbishment.
Meanwhile, a short saunter up the leafy Parkway at the southern end of Fairmont Park is the imposing Philadelphia Museum of Art, America's third-biggest art museum. The museum is undergoing renovations designed by Frank Gehry to increase space.
On top of all that, dotted around Logan Square are some of Philly's finest institutions and museums. These include the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul; the historic Public Library; the Franklin Institute Science Museum; and the Academy of Natural Sciences Museum, the country's oldest natural history museum. (For culture vultures with deep pockets, overlooking Logan Square is the Four Seasons Hotel.) And, if you prefer your art al fresco, the Mural Arts Program (muralarts.org) has created more than 3,500 murals over the last 25 years and many are dotted around the city centre. The recently completed How Philly Works, which can be seen at the airport, measures nearly 85,000 square feet.
A few blocks from The Barnes, on Broad Street at Vine Street, is Meg Saligman's epic The Evolving Face of Nursing -- a wondrously ambitious new mural that incorporates LED light into the work. Faces appear, dissolve and reappear, and technology renders apparent the hidden workings of the human body. The mural is at its most dramatic at night, when its images shift under the glow of the lights. My favourite Saligman mural is her haunting Tribute to the Flag, painted on the side of an industrial building in the aftermath of 9/ 11. …