There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the long-simmering Barnes controversy. Moving the collection will allow more people to see it. In its new location the Barnes will be able to carry out more effectively a central part of its founder's mission, which was to use his collection as a tool for education.
But there has been a major price to pay for that new access and flexibility, tethered as it has been to the notion of duplication.
The problem is not simply that the architecture of the rebuilt galleries feels a bit hollow and insubstantial. It is that the artworks themselves are diminished. They hang in rooms where the relationship between architecture and art is not deeply personal and eccentric, as it was in Merion, but precise and clinical.
Think of it this way: The galleries' lack of authenticity — the architectural equivalent of a paint-by-numbers exercise — operates like another light source. Like a naked bulb in the corner of a room, it is almost impossible to ignore, and it throws a harsh, thin glare on the art.
All of which leads to a fairly basic question: Of all the dictates that Barnes laid down about how his collection ought to be treated after his death, what makes his peculiar philosophy of display the only one the current guardians of the paintings treated as sacred and inviolable?
The new leaders of the Barnes Foundation have done all sorts of things that Barnes himself would have hated. They have stripped the Cret building of its artworks and moved them to the heart of the Philadelphia cultural establishment, which Barnes fundamentally distrusted. They have named the giant court after Walter Annenberg, a man Barnes couldn't stand.
So why this insistence on producing copies of the galleries, on hanging the paintings precisely as they were shown in Merion?
Ideally, the decision to move the art, tough as it was to make, would have set in motion a complete reassessment of the Barnes' architectural needs, one open to the idea that the proper container for the relocated collection might turn out to be a building filled with entirely and forthrightly new galleries.
Instead the new and the fake-old are entirely walled off from each other in the Williams and Tsien design, circling each other warily but never managing to find a place or a way to talk.
Imagine if the Barnes trustees, in the name of improved access to a supremely great but historically cloistered collection, had declared they were going to produce replicas of its paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and Van Gogh and hang those in a new building on the parkway.
The howls of protest would have been loud and immediate. The idea wouldn't have lasted five minutes.
And yet the notion persists that re-creating buildings is somehow more reasonable or at least less obvious and that new rooms can be made to impersonate old ones without much aesthetic risk. That copies of paintings belong in gift shops and on refrigerators, where their fakeness is self-evident and salable, while copies of buildings can go blithely along pretending to be real. That architecture somehow is different.
Memo from Philadelphia: It's not.