THE BARNES FOUNDATION, that grand old curmudgeonly lion of a museum, has been turned into what may be the world’s most elegant petting zoo. I am not surprised that the members of the press, after touring the Foundation’s new home on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, have by and large been pleased. We live in a period when everything is supposed to be easy, whether preparing dinner, accessing the news, or looking at art. And the old Barnes, for three quarters of a century a splendidly ornery landmark in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, was not easy.
The worst time to see a museum is in the weeks when it’s just opening. That’s why, for the moment, I’ve opted to stay away from the Barnes Foundation’s new building in downtown Philadelphia, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In the days before the public arrives, critics experience a totally artificial environment—a museum without museumgoers. When the doors are finally opened to the public, the mood in the galleries is likely to be so keyed up that it’s impossible to have a sense of what the place will feel like six months—or two years—later.
When I was growing up, we often visited my grandparents in Brooklyn in the summer, and my earliest memories of New York’s museums will forever be associated with some extraordinarily hot, muggy afternoons. I cannot pinpoint the summer when I first saw, or at least was first conscious of, the Picassos and Matisses at the Museum of Modern Art. And I’m uncertain when I first visited the Morgan Library.