PHILADELPHIA -- The Barnes Foundation is no longer the greatest art collection you'll never see.
Art aficionados and academics might never stop debating whether Dr. Albert C. Barnes' jaw-dropping cache should have been uprooted from its cozy confinement in suburban Merion and transplanted to a modernist box on the museum-studded Benjamin Franklin Parkway. But like it or not, the Barnes' long, strange trip has reached its final destination.
"We are beginning a chapter of history at the Barnes where the `plain people' that Dr. Barnes so often talked about will at long last feel these masterpieces are as readily available for their enjoyment and study as anyone in this room," said Judge Jacqueline Allen, the foundation's secretary, at a preview of the collection Wednesday.
The Barnes expects 250,000 visitors to see the collection during its first year in Philadelphia, roughly four times more than in its hallowed former home that required months-in-advance reservations. Visitors also will see it better, with discreet lighting to reduce the glare that was a perennial problem in Merion.
Along with the improvements in access and aesthetics comes added space for a restaurant and cafe, a gift shop, classrooms and an auditorium, and more parking than its predecessor.
Folks' opinions on the new amenities may correspond with their view on whether the move saved or destroyed the celebrated collection of 800 paintings and 1,700 other objects, which makes its official public debut Saturday in its new home.
"This immense tent behind us is where people will dance on the grave of Albert Barnes," said Evelyn Yaari of Friends of Barnes Foundation, a citizens group that fought in court for years to prevent the move, as she and a handful of others protested outside the new building. "The very smart people of Philadelphia know a fake when they see one and they know a racket when they see one."
Opponents said Philadelphia's political and corporate powerbrokers, hungry to reap the economic spoils and bragging rights to the legendary trove, conspired to orchestrate the undoing of Barnes' trust, which stated the collection could never be moved. The alleged scenario inspired the scathing 2009 documentary "The Art of the Steal."
It may look like a museum but officials are quick to point out that the Barnes will remain true to – and expand upon – the educational mission that its creator intended. Opponents say removing the collection from its original context has created a "McBarnes," despite the efforts to replicate the dizzying floor-to-ceiling arrangements of paintings, furniture and metalwork that underscored Barnes' eccentric philosophy of art appreciation.
The Barnes Foundation's saga has been a tumultuous one from the outset thanks to the irascible Barnes himself, a Philadelphia butcher's son-turned-pharmaceutical baron.
Introduced in the 1910s to then-radical works of Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne by his friend, Ashcan School painter William Glackens, Barnes went on to amass the world's most comprehensive private collection of French impressionist, postimpressionist and early modern paintings. He also assembled a lesser-known but extraordinary array of African sculpture, Old Master paintings, antique furnishings and Native American pottery and jewelry.
A side exhibit at the new Barnes Foundation – explaining his art philosophy and presenting newspaper clippings and letters – lets visitors get inside Barnes' head, in a way the former location could not, to understand the rhyme and reason of his collection.
Barnes created his eponymous foundation as a free art school largely for the underprivileged. "I am trying to do the biggest thing for Philadelphia than any one man has ever attempted," he told an interviewer in 1923.
Shortly afterward, he pulled up the metaphorical drawbridge when the cognoscenti ridiculed an exhibit of his daring collection. He required would-be visitors to make their appeals in writing, and often responded to the high-society types he despised with darkly comical rejection letters he sometimes signed as his dog.
Barnes, who died in a 1951 car crash, left behind a trust that stipulated his collection could never be moved. It took a court fight for Barnes officials to embark on a world tour of the collection in the 1990s. The tour was a success in raising desperately needed funds but the fiscal picture remained grim.
After years of financial struggles, infighting and mismanagement allegations, Barnes Foundation officials in 2002 asked a judge's permission to move a few miles south to downtown Philadelphia. They said staying in Merion, where hours and visitor numbers were strictly limited by the township, would lead to bankruptcy and the dismantling of the multibillion-dollar collection
Three charitable foundations promised to help the Barnes raise $150 million upon the relocation's approval, which happened in 2004.
"It was a long and arduous road but the (end) product is so wonderful," Allen said.
The legal squabbling continues in Montgomery County Court, largely related to legal fees in the epic case, even as champions of the move attend a week of galas welcoming the Barnes to the neighborhood it shares with the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.