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Spinning the Barnes Foundation's controversial plan to move

December 7, 2009 |  6:00 am

Barnes_02 For its Sunday “Verbatim” feature, the Philadelphia Inquirer posted comments made by Barnes Foundation board chairman Bernard C. Watson at the Nov. 13 groundbreaking for the school's controversial, $150-million new building to be erected on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city's wannabe version of the Champs-Élysées. Welcome to the “Verbatim” Spin Room.

Most every art and cultural critic who has written on the subject has opposed the plan, which will shutter the astounding Post-Impressionist and early Modern art collection in suburban Merion, dismantle what ranks as the greatest American cultural monument of the first half of the 20th century and relocate the art five short miles to a hoped-for tourist venue downtown (pictured). In the pungent words of Time magazine's Richard Lacayo, it's “death by disembowelment.”

You can read Watson's comments for yourself; but, in a nutshell he says the board tried to keep the financially strapped Barnes intact and in place, which proved to be impossible. So, to save it they opted for the next best solution: moving.

I don't believe it. I believe that boosting cultural tourism in Philadelphia was always the goal, and the Barnes' fabled art collection was the key. (Watson also chaired the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, a local tourism agency, and he once told the Inquirer the Barnes “belongs” downtown.) With the cultural tourism goal set, moving all those paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh and the rest into the city from suburban Merion, where they couldn't be profitably maximized, was the only answer.

The tail, in other words, wagged the dog.

“The foundation's ability to prosper, or indeed survive, in its Merion location was exacerbated by local regulations limiting visitation to the galleries,” Watson writes, as if admissions income is ever more than a tiny fraction of any healthy non-profit's budget. “Accordingly, in 2000 the [Barnes] board commissioned Deloitte & Touche to develop a long-range plan, which would enable us to restore the foundation to financial health within its Merion setting.”

Huh? Watson's board chose Deloitte & Touche, a business auditing and accounting firm, for strategic direction about a troubled non-profit cultural monument? That is either a testament to the board's incompetence, or it's a savvy calculation.

Deloitte's web site lists 20 industries in which it specializes, including aerospace, insurance, banking and real estate. Non-profit culture is not among them. Tourism is.

Needless to say, Deloitte was unable to come up with a successful business plan for the Barnes in Merion. So, Watson says he turned to local philanthropies for help. Not for help in the tough work of preserving a difficult but incomparable cultural monument, which is what one expects of philanthropy, but help in executing a business decision to move the Barnes to Philadelphia.

The philanthropies agreed. And on January 3, the process begins in earnest: The Barnes Foundation will close five second-floor galleries, turning rooms 14 through 18 into a conservation suite in preparation for the move.

Sometimes, watching something spin can give you a headache.

--Christopher Knight

Photo: A model of the Barnes Foundation's planned new home. Credit: The Barnes Foundation

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