Once a quiet home to a great art collection in Lower Merion, the Barnes Foundation loudly tooted its own horn at its inauguration gala Friday night. The social event of the year, capping a decade of planning, building, and controversy, attracted the who’s who of the city, including the philanthropic elite (Lenfest, Hamilton, Neubauer) and the arbiters of the city’s cultural establishment (the Philadelphia Museum of Art was in the house, as was the Philadelphia Orchestra).
NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams came down from New York City, to his old Philadelphia stomping grounds, to MC the evening. The TV journalist (who showed off his exemplary talent for recovering from technical video glitches) recalled his salad days living with his wife down by the Ben Franklin Bridge. As over 800 gliterati sat down to dinner, Williams reminded them of Dr. Albert Barnes’ commitment to the power of art, his dogged determination in the face of critics, and his cantankerous temper. All this at a highbrow social event which Dr. Barnes would most certainly–judging by the historical record–have hated.
Piped-in video messages arrived from First Lady Michelle Obama, who equated Dr. Barnes educational mission to the fact that the NEA grants arts education initiatives in every congressional district across the country, as well as from Wallis Annenberg, the Los Angeles-based chair of the multi-billion dollar Annenberg Foundation. Competing with those figures representing tremendous political and financial power was the buzz that Bill Cunningham, the impish street-fashion photographer from the New York Times, was circulating with his intrepid camera.
Former Governor Ed Rendell, who pushed to move the collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art from Lower Merion to Center City, came with his wife, Judge Marjorie Rendell, even though they split a year ago. Perhaps more surprising was the arrival of current Governor Tom Corbett, a figure rarely seen in the City of Brotherly Love.
The carefully landscaped grounds of the new Barnes building, designed by Laurie Olin, were left unfinished to make room for a temporary tent erected south-east of the new building. Guests who paid $1500 to be the first to see the meticulously crafted galleries and atrium (by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien) were treated with a short set by chanteuse Norah Jones, playing several numbers from her monster debut “Come Away With Me” and her new release “Little Broken Hearts,” ending with a spirited gospel number with help from Enon Tabernacle Baptist Choir.
Saturday night, they do it all over again, with new surprises. Then, after the tuxedos and evening gowns, the Barnes Foundation will stage another grand opening for the general public on Memorial Day weekend, when 56 continuous hours of activities, programming, and performance will keep the new building lit up through the holiday.