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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