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The Barnes settles in despite departures

When the Barnes Foundation's exhibition "William Glackens" closes in February it will mark the end of the fifth special exhibition at the not-quite-so-spanking-new-anymore galleries on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Room 18 gallery at the Barnes Foundation. (Tom Crane)

When the Barnes Foundation's exhibition "William Glackens" closes in February it will mark the end of the fifth special exhibition at the not-quite-so-spanking-new-anymore galleries on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In the past, before the Barnes and its renowned collection of Renoirs, Matisses, Picassos, Cezannes, and other early modern works moved to Philadelphia in May 2012, entertaining such a sojourning special exhibition was simply unheard of. In its historic home in Merion, Montgomery County, the Barnes collection was wholly self-contained.

That all changed with the controversial move to Philadelphia. Not only did the paintings take up residence in a new $150 million home in the city, but also the Barnes took on a host of new activities and responsibilities. When you build an expensive palace at the heart of a striving city's cultural tourism corridor, it costs. And costs. Each and every year. More visitors. More staffers. More needs. More fund-raising.

As 2014 winds down, the Barnes has no permanent director. There's no permanent chief curator. The spotlight is hot and unblinking.

So how's it going after 21/2 years?

"I think the Barnes' future is very bright, and I think the Barnes is very bright right now," said Margaret (Peg) Zminda, the Barnes' executive vice president, chief financial and operating officer, and interim president since January.

For 2014, visitorship should come in "north of" 250,000, she said, which represents a tapering off from the 325,000 for the Barnes' first full year, but is in line with pre-opening projections. About 70 percent of those visitors come from the New York-Washington region and 7 percent are foreign visitors, the latter figure not quite up to some starry-eyed pre-opening speculation.

School visits will be about 12,000 children this year, above the projected 10,000.

The annual budget is about $18.5 million, Zminda said, with no deficit. Endowment covers about $2.5 million of the total; the rest is split between earned and contributed income, $8 million each.

Annual memberships are over 20,000 and rising, Barnes officials said.

About $11 million of capital pledges from the new gallery construction drive remain outstanding, with $4.5 million expected to be paid this year, $4 million more scheduled for payment by the end of next year, and the balance by 2018, Zminda said.

"We're busy," she said. "We have a lot going on. Yeah, it's a great time to be at the Barnes."

Zminda, who joined the foundation in 2007, knows the organization well. She moved temporarily into the president's seat when Derek Gillman, who oversaw the Barnes' move and the construction of the new gallery, resigned effective Jan. 1 to join the faculty at Drexel University.

A search for a new director is under way, but Joseph Neubauer, chair of the search committee on the Barnes board, declined to make any comment on its status or potential duration.

"We knew when this started it would be a two-year-long process," Zminda said. "I don't think that's a big surprise. That's how long these things take."

(It took the Philadelphia Museum of Art a year to find and elect Timothy Rub director following the sudden June 2008 death of longtime director Anne d'Harnoncourt.)

The absence of a Barnes director has an impact on the institution's curatorial programming. Chief curator Judith F. Dolkart resigned in July to become director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. Barnes officials believe that selection of Dolkart's successor should be left to the yet-to-benamed next president.

Despite these key vacancies, the Barnes has not suffered any major dislocations so far, officials say. In part that is due to Zminda's experience; she is well-regarded in the field and by the Barnes staff, which now numbers 90 full-timers and at least two dozen part-time staffers.

Dolkart also planned the special exhibition program through 2016, and exhibitions are even set for part of 2017.

Following Glackens, the Barnes will present site-specific installation works. "Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things," curated by Martha Lucy, will open May 16 and run through Aug. 3. Lucy, an associate professor of art history at Drexel University and former associate curator of the Barnes, said "the pieces react specifically to the way [Albert C.] Barnes installed his own collection."

Lucy is also working as a consultant for the Barnes, handling curatorial issues that arise in the absence of a new chief curator. Following Lucy's show, the Barnes will present "Venus and Vulcan: Wrought Iron From the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen." Dolkart arranged for this exhibition, which ties into the Barnes' massive collection of ironwork from Lancaster County and elsewhere. Dolkart also commissioned a companion piece to run with it, "Ellen Harvey: Metal Painting."

Early in 2016 the Barnes joins with the Columbus Museum of Art to mount "Picasso and the Great War."

"We are viewed as a very attractive partner for a lot of exhibitions," Zminda said. "Partly because of the strength of our permanent collection . . . . For a small institution we have kind of a big footprint. There's a cachet to being involved with us."