Fight to stop the Barnes from moving gathers pace
By Jason Edward Kaufman
A version of this article appeared in The Art Newspaper, Sept. 2007, p. 14.
The battle to prevent the Barnes Foundation from moving its multi-billion-dollar modern art collection from Lower Merion Township to central Philadelphia heated up this summer with opposition groups petitioning the Montgomery County Orphans Court and the Pennsylvania State attorney general to review the court’s 2004 decision that allowed the Barnes to break its founder’s trust by relocating his collection. The growing opposition now includes the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners which oversees Merion, the district’s US Congressman Jim Gerlach, three State representatives, and the scrappy Friends of the Barnes Foundation which recently launched a legal defense fund to raise money for the cause.
As has been widely reported, three Philadelphia foundations have raised more than $150m to support moving the collection to a city-owned site where they believe it will attract a wider audience and greater philanthropic support. Barnes executive director Derek Gillman says the foundation is reviewing proposals from six architects for a 120,000 sq ft facility and plans to announce a selection in early September. But the Merion neighbors want the unique trove of Cezannes, Matisses, Renoirs and others to remain in the gallery that Albert Barnes built in their leafy suburb in 1926.
In August, the County Commissioners’ special counsel Mark Schwartz filed a petition to County Court judge Stanley Ott seeking to reopen the case. The petition notes that when the court granted permission for the Barnes to break Albert Barnes’ trust it had not been informed that two years earlier the Pennsylvania Senate already had earmarked $107m to support the move. Mr Schwartz argues that the state funding mitigates the Barnes’ claim of financial distress which was the determining factor in the case. The County and the Friends group sent a letter to Pennsylvania State attorney general Tom Corbett urging him to review the matter. State law calls for the least drastic change necessary to preserve a trustee’s intentions, and they argue that the Barnes can be made solvent without moving the collection. Mr Corbett has called the Barnes move a “closed matter,” but the Commissioners and Friends point out that judge Ott has stated that “the attorney general, as parens patriae for charities, had an absolute duty to probe, challenge and question every aspect of the monumental changes now under consideration.”
Meanwhile, Montgomery County and Merion have proposed improving the Barnes’ finances by increasing attendance and building an endowment. In July the County offered to issue $50m in low-interest bonds to buy the Barnes property and lease it back to the foundation. The idea is that the Barnes could use the funds as an endowment that would generate interest greater than the annual debt payments, but the Barnes rejected the offer. In August Merion changed its zoning to allow the Barnes to double its current attendance and suggested increasing the admission charge to further increase revenues. The County and Friends also have proposed that the Barnes sell portions of a separate estate in Chester County and unexhibited artworks to build an endowment to support operations in Merion. “As long as it’s self sustaining – and we can make it self-sustaining — then we should honour Dr Barnes’ will,” says County commissioner Tom Ellis, but it remains to be seen if Judge Ott and attorney general Corbett will give the opposition’s new arguments a hearing.
Jason Edward Kaufman