It’s an artist’s dream: nearly every date sold out, and tickets so popular that new premium levels have been created to spread out demand. The critics and the public are both nearly unanimous in their praise, and one of the biggest names in the business has just shown up for an extended residency.
By almost any metric, The Barnes Foundation’s first year of residency on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has been a success. Attendance is running five times what it was at the former Merion location, and has been so robust that higher ticket prices for the most popular times went into effect in May. As controversial and acrimonious as the years leading up to the foundation’s move to Philadelphia were, that is how much the foundation has been embraced by the public. And the first exhibition mounted by the foundation in 90 years, “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall,” opened on May 4, just in time for the one-year anniversary of its new building.
“We really have done very well, but we have worked very hard to make it go well,” says Derek Gillman, executive director and president of the Barnes since 2006. “The warmth with which people have greeted us is a pleasant surprise — it has been almost universal. We’ve come through quite an epic saga.”
He is referring to the years-long battle to move a collection that includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes and 59 Matisses, along with sculptures, ceramics and more assembled by Dr. Albert Barnes during his life. The process of relocating from its Merion home to Philadelphia has been the subject of countless articles and even documentaries.
“To have all of these people come up to say how much they enjoy the collection is enormously gratifying,” says the 60-year-old Gillman, whose own journey has traversed many landscapes.
A native of Hove, on England’s south coast near Brighton, Gillman is no stranger to the rigors of overseeing an institution’s relocation. Since beginning his career at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich upon graduating from Oxford, he has been involved in four museum construction projects, including the expansion of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he served as president and director from 1999 until 2006. For the job at PAFA, Gillman moved his family — his wife, Yael, and three children — from Australia, where he was deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia’s largest encyclopedic art museum.
“I do know many of the pitfalls of creating a building that will house a collection,” Gillman said. “The one thing I learned very early on in my museum-building career was the importance of great lighting. I always look at buildings in terms of the lighting.”
The lighting may have changed — the state-of-the-art design by Paul Marantz has resulted in a completely different atmosphere than was at the Merion location —but the layout of the original 12,000 square feet of gallery space has been recreated, with an additional 81,000 square feet of exhibition spaces, a gift shop, restaurants, and more.
And it’s all within a sheath of Israeli limestone. Quarried in the Negev by a company jointly owned by Jews and Palestinians and cut in the West Bank, the facade provides an antidote to the site’s last tenant, a gray-hued juvenile detention center. Gillman says that the stone has proven to be so popular that he hopes to work with the Israeli consulate to bring the stonecutters over to see the fruits of their labor.
There is a substantial Jewish presence inside the Barnes as well. Barnes collected numerous works from members of the Jewish School of Paris. Also known as “The Circle of Montparnasse,” for the Parisian neighborhood where many of the artists settled, the Jewish School was made up of a number of artists who came to Paris from across Europe between 1910 and 1940 to hone their craft in that most cosmopolitan of cities. Among their ranks were Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin and Lipschitz, all of whom are represented at the Barnes. (Other members of the group included Mané-Katz, Chagall and Kisling.)
Gillman showed an affinity for art from an early age, something that he says was quite unusual for an Orthodox Jew in England. “Within Anglo Jewish life,” he explains, “there was no particular interest in art. I just drew from an early age.”
Before Oxford, Gillman went to the Clifton School in Bristol, a boarding school that was anything but typical.
“It was a Quaker school,” he recalls. “The theory was, you would go to a school where you got a regular English private school education, but in a Jewish environment. I went to the only Jewish house” — what Americans would consider a dormitory — “at an English boarding school; even the food was kosher.”
The rigors of boarding school and matriculation at Oxford did nothing to diminish Gillman’s artistic bent. He planned to leave Oxford to attend art school, but was persuaded to stay by his father, who promised to pay for art school if his son completed his degree. He did graduate from Oxford, but never made it to art school, instead going to work in London for Christie’s auction house before embarking on his museum career in 1981 at the British Museum.
Education remains paramount for Gillman today. He is most enthusiastic about the outreach programs the Barnes has established. The Art and Aesthetics and horticulture programs, begun in Merion, remain in place, but at Gillman’s impetus, the Barnes has launched a series of new offerings for schoolchildren. They include programs geared to specific grades — from second through eighth — and a partnership with the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, Fresh Artists.
“That was very much part of the initiative and the thrust of coming to Philadelphia — the notion that the Barnes would be more accessible to a school district full of kids,” Gillman says. “Bringing this extraordinary collection within reach of a larger group of schools, seeing kids doing weaving, doing a dancing class that involves understanding composition through dancing, is important. We are doing what Dr. Barnes wanted to do in 1925: help people understand works of art better.”