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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

Comments () | Archives (8)

Kudos to Christopher Knight for keeping a spotlight on this sad affair, a cultural loss for the US and an embarrassment for Philadelphia. It seems that the dismantling of the Barnes is a fait accompli at this point; the best we can hope for now is to learn from this episode, and to shroud the perpetrators in social shame such that future trustees of cultural institutions will be dissuaded from making similar moves. Please continue to name the names of the perpetrators, and to revisit this issue as the years go by and the appalling stupidity of this move becomes ever more apparent.

Christopher Knight gets it right again. This speech by Watson seems to be the 'official' justification for the move. I wouldn't be so sure this is the end of the story however. Stay tuned. Those opposing the move have not given up. Closing the galleries for conservation a full 2 years and probably more for 'conservation' is very strange. They can't really do conservation in the actually galleries as the chemicals used to clean paintings are toxic and flammable. It doesn't take 2 years to pack paintings. So what is really going on?

"Turning rooms 14 -18 into a conservation suite" sounds like a disaster in the making. What kind of conservation will be done there ? These rooms are part of the Merion gallery where the full collection on display is housed. Same HVAC system, same fire suppression system same security system. If volatile conservation chemicals will be used in these rooms, it puts the entire collection at risk not only for fire but in that the chemicals will be dispersed throughout the galleries. If a jury-rigged system is set up to circumvent that, then there are additional concerns about security and stability of the environmental controls. A case in point is the disaster at the Louvre when they restored Veronese's Wedding at Cana in situ. Other instances of conservation lab fiascoes are in the literature.

Regardless of what is going to be done in those rooms, what will happen to the works already installed in them ? To my knowledge the Barnes Foundation does not have on-site secure, environmentally controlled storage areas in which to house these works.

Closing the galleries on the excuse of using them as conservation space sounds to me like a cover for the fact that management wants to close down as quickly as possible the Merion gallery in a vain hope that once the whole collection can no longer be seen as intended that the outcry against the closure will fade. I'm guessing that they especially want the evidence of what is there in Merion erased before the film "The Art of the Steal" is released in February and the outcry only builds.

Closing galleries. So not only do they intend to change forever the experience of visiting the Barnes. They're going to start NOW????!!! How Dare They. They are taking away the experience that I hoped to have many more times before the move.
Can't THIS be stopped?
What can we do?

It is telling to note that in May 2006 there were 65 donors. In November 2009, there were 68 donors. Total amounts raised: May 2006 $150 million; October 2007 $150 million. It appears that fund-raising has stalled. Cost of the project: $200 - $250 million, including either a $50 million or $100 million endowment. The Barnes administration can't seem to decide.

The list of perpetrators begins with Tom Corbett, Attorney General of Pennsylvania and governorship hopeful, the only person with legal standing in the matter. He has remained resolutely blind, deaf, and DUMB on this travesty. Then there is Governor Ed Rendell, a disgrace to the Democratic Party. Other donors: The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Annenberg Foundation, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, The City of Philadelphia, which is donating land worth about $35 million even if it can hardly keep its basic services going, Neubauer (as in Joe Neubauer, as in ARAMARK Corporation) Foundation, The William Penn Foundation, Dennis Alter (as in Advanta Corporation), Comcast Foundation, Connelly Foundation, Exelon Corporation, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Agnes Gund (president emerita of MoMA), Phoebe W. Haas Charitable Trust B, Dorrance H. Hamilton, The Honickman Charitable Foundation, The Sidney Kimmel Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Llewellyn, The Maple Hill Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Raymond and Ruth Perelman Foundations, PNC Foundation, Robin and Mark Rubenstein, Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation, The Ware Family through National Philanthropic Trust, Wilmington Trust. To be continued...

Time to Shift gears on these artful dodgers and keep this thing from spinning out of control. It seems like there's a dark horse in this here race, and my boy's running a slow third. Don't stop now. Take an aspirin. A little Drama-mine might work too.

Correction to earlier post: Total amounts raised: May 2006 $150 million; October 2009 $150 million.
Continuing the list of perpetrators: Anonymous (5), ARAMARK Charitable Fund, Arkema Inc. Foundation, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Blank Rome LLP, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz,* CIGNA Corporation, Citizens Bank Foundation, Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation,Duane Morris LLP, The Glenmede Trust Company (Pew-related), Stephen J. Harmelin* Charitable Trust, Independence Blue Cross, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation, Lyn and George Ross, The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Mr. and Mrs. Andre V. Duggin*, Pepper Hamilton LLP, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, The Sunoco Foundation (Pew-related), Maud and Brian Tierney (Publisher and CEO of The Philadelphia Inquirer), Mr. and Mrs. Arlin M. Adams, Aegis Property Group, The Hon. Jacqueline F. Allen*, Stephanie K. Bell-Rose, The Binswanger Foundation, Harold E. Doley, Jr., Dilworth Paxson LLP, Gwendolyn and Colbert King, Ira M. Lubert, Mr. and Mrs. David G. Marshall, The E. Murdoch Family Foundation, Rebecca Rimel (Head of Pew) and Patrick Caldwell, Neil L. Rudenstine* and Angelica ZAnder Rudenstine, Verizon Foundation. * = Barnes Board member

The only bad thing about the move is that they are still trying to hang onto Barnes' crackpot "art school" schtick, which has run way old.

My wife worked in the Barnes foundation's current site. It is a dirty, badly lit, poorly run operation. It is impossible for these amazing works to be properly displayed in the manner Barnes envisioned. As a result, most people cannot enjoy these paintings to the fullest.

Art should not be held hostage to the dead. Had Barnes willed that the paintings would be burned after his funeral, would we honor such a will?


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