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Is Barnes Foundation admissions-income really that bad?

March 8, 2010 | 12:01 pm

Rendell EPA MIKE THEILER 2 Sometimes, common sense is uncommonly wrong.

Case in point: a supposedly common-sense budgetary claim about the Barnes Foundation, the extraordinary art collection brilliantly integrated into a specially designed building in a 12-acre arboretum by collector Albert C. Barnes and his wife, Laura, more than 80 years ago. The suburban Philadelphia building and site design are an integral part of the collection, and vice versa, but the Barnes is now being dismantled. The art will be moved to a new tourist destination downtown.

The budget claim comes about midway through "The Art of the Steal," the documentary film on the affair now in theaters. (The movie opens Friday in L.A., following a special, sold-out screening Tuesday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell told the filmmakers that a big reason the art had to be moved is that the current suburban location simply cannot accommodate enough visitors to pay the bills. The Barnes has struggled financially for years.

"It was going down the tubes and there was no soluble answer to its problems," Rendell explains on-screen. "They couldn't get enough people into the Barnes to see it, to make it even close to financially workable."

In other words, admission revenue fell far short of covering operating costs. Sounds like a plausible explanation for moving -- especially if you're mistaking a nonprofit cultural institution for a commercial business, like a Starbuck's or a widget factory.

The governor does get big props for being one of the few engineers of the move to agree to be interviewed for "The Art of the Steal." (Full disclosure: Like Rendell, I was also interviewed and appear in it, uncompensated.) But his claim is actually an eye-roller. Here's why.

Admissions are always just a small fraction of any such nonprofit's budgetary mix.

A 2006 news report showed that, on average, member institutions of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, the nation's leading professional organization, earn an average of five percent of their revenue from admissions. (The Barnes Foundation is one of AAMD's 193 members.) Five percent. Rendell wasn't identifying a horrendous problem unique to the beleaguered Barnes, which therefore required drastic measures. Rather, he was describing the norm -- a financial reality that professionals in the field understand but few lay people know.

An oblivious film reviewer in the Architects Newspaper writes of the movie that "Rendell emerges as a figure of admirably rational thinking." When the reviewer then questions why anyone would not support moving the Barnes, it's easy to see why this cultural disaster is happening.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Gov. Edward G. Rendell. Credit: Mike Theiler / EPA


Spinning the Barnes Foundations controversial plan to move

Comments () | Archives (13)

The Barnes debate continues! I'll have to watch this movie.

However, if Barnes receives most of its money from foundations, as other museums do, it becomes problematic if attendance is low because it's serving too small of an audience.

Rendell also argues in the film that the Merion gallery "is just too small" i.e. you can't get enough people in it to make sufficient revenue. "Ten times more people could see it in Philadelphia." The problem is that the Barnes management has promised all along not to change the arrangement of the artwork or the size of the rooms. So, in addition to gate revenue, building size is another red-herring argument.

Tonight he is in Philadelphia for a $5000 a plate campaign fundraiser to "promote his agenda" i.e. raise money to pry votes out of state legislators. That is how law works here. One fact never mentioned in the film, how much money Rendell has receieved from the major backers of moving the collection, including $250,000 from the Annenbergs and tens of thousands from the Lenfest family.

One thing to keep in mind watching the film and reading the critiques, the Barnes lawyers made sure the court that approved moving the collection got a one-sided story--their side. This film tells some of the facts that the Barnes lawyers did not want the court to hear, and now they cry foul that the film is biased. Well the film presents the Barnes lawyers' case through Rendell. Viewers are in a far better position to decide the case than the judge ever was.

I was interviewed for the film and did it for free.

nick tinari

the move is a rip off

Christopher Knight is exactly right: the trustees' plan was to move not to save the Barnes. In March 2001, I offered a plan to Kimberly Camp, then Barnes Director, that would have saved the Barnes in its present location. While Barnes' indenture strictly forbade selling paintings, my plan would have offered partial undivided interests in the titles to selected paintings, which would have conferred possession to private buyers for the remainder of their lives. Not later than their last will and testament they would have been obligated to give their partial interests back to the Barnes. In this way, the Barnes could have taken a temporary deviation from the indenture, which Judge Ott could have granted under the doctrine of cy pres, that after twenty-five years or so would have kept the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion with all its paintings just as Dr. Barnes had left it plus some $400 million in the bank. I filed the plan, which can be read here http://home.comcast.net/~maroney.james/Art/Museum_Plan/Barnes_Brief.pdf as Amicus Curiae and sat for a week listening to the court do a dog and pony show. I realize now that Judge Ott who questioned Ms. Camp about the plan at length, did so by way of dismissing it. The fix was in and Judge Ott was in the service of Philadelphia's power brokers.

How inspiring that the "Keep the Barnes in Merion" crowd is willing to go down with the ship! Christopher Knight's latest post is disingenuous at best: of course admission revenue won't cover the expenses of any museum. A museum needs trustees and donors, and in its almost sixty years of existence, The Barnes, led by Barnes' hand picked trustees, slid into insolvency. Rendell is exactly right: nobody is willing to come to the aid of The Barnes if it remains where it is, where visitors are limited to 400 per day. Other single collector museums, like The Frick and The Chrysler, are financially solvent, and the fact that The Barnes isn't is not Governor Rendell's fault. I've been The Barnes many times, and I am thrilled that it is moving to a location where more people will be able to see it and the paintings will be properly cared for. I applaud Christopher Knight for his candor, though: he makes his elitism obvious in his disparagement of "tourists." As Charles Demuth said, pictures like to be looked at, so the pictures will be quite happy in their new location, where they'll be seen by many more people.

I have not seen the movie, nor was I smart enough to visit The Barnes Foundation while attending the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. However, as a fan of Cezanne and Matisse from an early age, I've long known about the importance of this institution. Also, as a proponent of historic preservation, my tendency is to support maintaining the integrity of our cultural heritage.

The Barnes Foundation is making headlines because of its unique set of circumstances. What is not addressed in Mr. Knight's article is the restrictions placed on The Barnes by its residential neighbors. These are rich and powerful people who have gone to great lengths to limit public access to the property. Yes, admission income never covers the cost of running this type of institution. However, the context is such that so few people are able to visit it, that funding has always been a serious problem.

I support the move to an easily accessible site on the basis that so many more people will be able to see and appreciate the amazing art that Mr. Barnes collected. I dread the thought of what might happen to Paul Cret's architecture and the carefully crafted gardens of the existing facility, but the art works are too important to be cloistered as they are now.

The lesson is that if you donate artwork for the public and place personal restrictions on that donation, people in government - or the courts - will dismantle your wishes if it is in their interest to do so. A lesson for all potential donors.

How interesting that you refuse to post comments that disagree with Christopher Knight's perspective.

Yes, but what you're leaving out is that the Barnes had been involved in lawsuits and countersuits with its neighbors for years, draining the endowment. It's true, front door admissions were never a big part of their funding, but they had wasted the rest of their money. Moving it, as you know, was a condition of the people offering to save it. They could have avoided the move if they hadn't put themselves in a position where they had to accept the offer.

Moving the Barnes is not cultural disaster. Where were all these "defenders" in the years when the Barnes lay undisturbed and unvisited? I used to beg people to visit the Barnes and they all turned me down. It was hard to get to, no one knew it existed, it was nearly impossible to get in (because of the restrictive entrance policy--200 people a day by advance appointment), and often half of it was closed at any one time. Merion did everything it could to discourage visitors. I went, many times, because I knew what was there. People choose to forget that Barnes himself was a horrid man with good taste and a lot of money. It was his policy to bar the public. The best thing for the art imprisoned in the Barnes is to be freed and shown and seen.

I'm confused. So what else is new. Guess I should see the film.

It's quite fashionable in the art world to criticize the Barnes Foundation decision to move. It's considered populist [i.e. anti-elitist] to decry this move because it’s a conspiracy funded by corporations and evil foundations like Andrew W. Mellon and Pew Charitable Trusts. The Friends of the Barnes oppose the move on the grounds that the collection should remain exactly as the very cranky Dr. Barnes left it. The irony is that although Mr. Barnes railed against the art establishment, he himself restricted the use of his collection to the few “deserving” students (i.e. those selected by Barnes himself).
A drop by visit to the Barnes used to be impossible although that has improved since the negative publicity for Lower Merion proved embarrassing. One often had to plan weeks, if not months in advance to visit. It's quite true that these neighbors did impose severe restrictions on attendance. While museum attendance is certainly not the biggest revenue generator it is also no doubt also true that a relatively unattended museum with few visitors won't increase its benefactors. I remember missing the tour bus which was picking us up at the Barnes after a visit. This bus left because it was not allowed to wait in the vicinity of the Barnes for more than 3 minutes to pick up passengers. This restriction was a direct result of the neighbors’ objections. I find it strange that these same intractable Barnes’ neighbors in Lower Merion suddenly developed an attachment to the institution which they spent years fighting with and so often bitterly complained about.
It appears that the alleged populists who insist that the Barnes stay in Lower Merion are really suggesting that the Barnes should stay in a wealthy white suburb where only a very few people who already know of its existence can view the collection. It's interesting that Knight has previously written that the now 10 year old Getty Center was too secluded from urban life and was not visitor friendly (some of the very same complaints leveled against the Barnes in its current location in Lower Merion).
The process of the Barnes Foundation move went through plenty of court scrutiny and was not simply railroaded through by the politicians wanting to attract tourist dollars. I don’t disagree that some politicians and corporations/foundations may have had an agenda in supporting the move, but in these tough economic times when museums are verging on collapse I would have imagined any thoughtful art critic would want art to be seen and supported even if it's through the filthy lucre of “tourist” dollars.

I live about 30 minutes from the Barnes, an easy drive up Route 1 from my hometown of Media, PA. I have lived here most of my life, and am quite familiar with the culture scene around here.
I support the move. Frankly, there’s nothing particularly special about the Barnes building and grounds other than the notoriety attached to their existence. Its peerless artwork deserves a much better place than a faux-educational setting that benefits a tiny number of “Barnesiacs”. Finally, Barnes himself intended the artwork to be made available for viewing by working people, which is nearly impossible given the limited hours (a result of its location) at which the museum is open.
If you polled the general population in this area, you would find that most people favor the move, and that those opposed to the move are the true elitists – art snobs and the like who look down at the working people Dr. Barnes adamantly supported.


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