Philadelphia Metropolis


A Grand Civic Moment

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Albert Barnes.jpgThis is about the new Barnes, but it begins on a beautiful Friday night at Citizens Bank Park with the Phillies playing the Boston Red Sox.  Through the kindness of strangers, we had 100-level seats, seven rows behind the home dugout, not quite close enough to touch the players, but enough to take close-up photos with my iPhone.

For the record, the Phillies won 9-6. All was right with the world, unless you were a Boston fan.

More important was the scene.  About 45,000 people gathered to witness this game.  Two out of three of them in tee shirts or the more expensive Phillies uniform tops that read Utley, Rollins, Thome, Halladay...I could go on and on. My favorite was a 10-year-old kid close to the dugout whose jersey read Lieberthal. He wasn't even born when Mike Lieberthal was catcher for the Phils. Yet, he celebrated Lieberthal on his back.

Sitting in the stadium, watching - no, experiencing - the Phils beat the Sox was a sports moment.  Or was it?  Was the enjoyment I got out of the game watching the Phils score more runs than the Sox?  It certainly was.

But, it was also a communal moment, where those of us in the stadium shared the triumph of victory even though we never swung a bat, hit a pitch, or caught a ground ball.

We were the Phillies and the Phillies were us.

Communal experiences was rare these days. We tend to lead private lives, circumscribed by our computers, our iPads and iPhones.  A public experience becomes the exception, not the rule.

Yet, why did I get such a charge out of it?  I think it was the primal connection between the fans around me and the men on the field.  We were both invested in this event, this moment, and we were one. 

This is a civic moment.

This is moment when we overcome our profound lack of connections and connect.  Suburbanite and urbanite. White and black, Old and young.  We take our differences and sweep them aside and focus on not what divides us but what unites us. Even if just for a few hours.

This is not a feeling that it easy to evoke at an event, nor as an institution.

The Phillies do it by winning, certainly, but also by dint of their longevity.  They were founded in 1883 and if you are a Philadelphian your father and your father's father and your great-grandfather all rooted for (and had their heart's broken by) the team.

Even if you are not into sports and never read a box score, can you imagine Philadelphia without the Phillies?  More than being part of the identity of Philadelphia, they help make our identity.

The same is true of the Barnes - or will be once the hoopla surrounding its opening is over and it settles into the consciousness of Philadelphians.  It is destined to become an integral part of the city

That wasn't true before.  The Barnes, sequestered on a residential street in Lower Merion was a recluse. It kept quirky hours.  It was hard to get into.  It was known in the world of art but anonymous in the world at large.

This is the way Albert Barnes wanted it.  And, it is fair to say, he would hate the Barnes on the Parkway - not because of its design, which replicates with eerie fidelity the display of art and artifacts exactly as Barnes wanted. He would hate it because of the word used in the Inquirer headline about the official opening - about the "grandees" who were present.  Barnes detested grandees. He detested their taste in art.  He detested their power to, as he saw it, dictate taste in art.  He detested them as his intellectual inferiors. 

I confess I did not go to the Barnes until about six years ago, when my wife wangled some tickets. It was a jaw-dropping experience.  The profusion of Renoirs, Matisses, Picassos, Manets was astonishing - certainly too rich to take in single visit.

Even if art isn't your thing, and your knowledge extends to maybe a dozen "famous" paintings, two or three of them are likely to be in the Barnes.

Barnes' irascibility aside, his redeeming - dare I say, democratic - feature was that he didn't care about the who of art (the famous guy who painted it) so much as the what of art - the artistic ideas that informed each work.  It allowed him to see connections lost on others in the thrall of the who.  And, he dictated the juxtaposition of paintings with artifacts in ways that, to him, illuminated the ideas common in the pieces - whether that be color, composition or conceptualization.

He never saw his art-stuffed mansion as a museum, but as an educational institution, where people could come and learn about those ideas and, therefore, better understand art. He was a didact - with money and a genius for appreciating beauty in art, whether that be a painting by Renoir or an African totem by an anonymous carver.

This is why the Barnes is not called a museum.  It is called the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia. It remains true to the Barnes coda that its purpose is educational. In reality, it could be called the Barnes Temple - because it is a temple to the ideas of Albert Barnes.

And now, its recluse days are over.  It is as public as you can get.  With its new building on the Parkway, its fame is destined to spread globally, not that Albert Barnes would give a hoot about his foundation bringing fame to the city. 

But by bringing it out of the shadows the makers of the new Barnes - the grandees who filled it on opening night - have given us a great civic gift.  The move allows the Barnes to become part of the communal life of Philadelphia, a treasure we can all share. It will be integral to the life and to the identity of city.

Over time, it will become embedded in the communal consciousness of the city, so that if the question is asked five or 10 or 20 years from now: Can you imagine Philadelphia without the Barnes?  The answer will be no.

-- Tom Ferrick



Photo: Dr. Albert C. Barnes
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