The Barnes Foundation collection in Lower Merion, Pa., one of the most illustrious and distinctive art displays in the world, has received what may be a decisive legal green light for its hotly disputed transfer to a new museum under construction five miles away in downtown Philadelphia.
Judge Stanley Ott of Montgomery County Orphans Court (the equivalent of a probate division judge in California’s Superior Courts) ruled Thursday that there’s no reason to revisit his 2004 decision allowing the Barnes Foundation to abrogate the will of collector Albert Barnes, which specified that his trove of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern masterworks should hang perpetually at his estate, each picture positioned just as he left it.
Barnes, a patent medicine magnate, died in a car wreck in 1951, leaving an idiosyncratic display of works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Modigliani and other European masters.
The ruling means plans can go forward to rehang the paintings in the new $150-million museum scheduled to open May 19. State funds reportedly will cover about a quarter of the museum’s $200-million cost, which includes a $50-million endowment.
I've been reading through the beleaguered Barnes Foundation's preliminary objections to the latest petition to reopen a nearly 7-year-old court decision, which permitted the move of its famed art collection from its historic home into a new building being erected a few miles away in downtown Philadelphia.
I'm no lawyer, but I have to say I'm surprised. Apparently the Barnes is hoping the judge won't be reading too closely.
On Tuesday, the court will be asked to dismiss a suit brought by opponents of the move, who claim that significant new information has come to light in the case. The opponents' petition argues that state officials -- notably, then-Atty. Gen. Mike Fisher, who is now a federal judge -- applied inappropriate pressure to a school designated as steward of the collection in order to diminish its role on the Barnes board of trustees.
Fisher recounted his actions in the 2009 documentary movie "The Art of the Steal." The court ruled in 2004 that the collection could be moved.
The Barnes objects that the Fisher information is not new because it was "widely reported at that time -- more than seven years ago -- in the local press." Five stories published in the Philadelphia Inquirer are cited in support of that position.
And that's where the surprise comes in.
One clear sign of the sad loss that will occur should the Barnes Foundation's fabled art collection move in 2012 from its historic home to a new building in downtown Philadelphia has now been disclosed. The new building is being designed by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In a Thursday news report, their absurd description of an early aim to evoke the architectural equivalent of a "Philly cheesesteak" will likely tick off many. Yet it's another detail of the plan that is more alarming because of the larger issue it raises.
The architects don't seem to understand the Barnes Foundation's historic significance.
Matisse's landmark 1905-06 painting "The Joy of Life" is a universally acclaimed breakthrough in 20th-century art and perhaps the pinnacle of the Barnes' many critically important pictures. The plan is to display it in its own small gallery on the new structure's second floor.
The painting -- Matisse's largest to date when he painted it -- has for decades hung in a stairwell of the Merion gallery, not in a room. Some have complained, as a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote, that the painting is "difficult to see" in the unusual setting. But that depends on what you mean by "see."
The plan to move "The Joy of Life" to its own room, described in the Journal story as "an innovation," in fact undercuts both the painting and the Barnes Foundation's landmark importance. The scheme is a clear demonstration of why historic preservation matters -- of why, in the words of the New Yorker's art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, "altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime."
When the Barnes Foundation opened in suburban Merion in 1925 in purpose-built galleries designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the growing collection of modern and other art was installed in unusual ways. Albert C. Barnes tinkered with those displays over the years, but they were guided by the aesthetic philosophy of his friend and teacher, educational reformer John Dewey. Matisse, who first visited Merion in 1930, declared the installation the best he had seen in America.
The Delaware River Port Authority, a Camden, N.J.-based regional transportation agency for southern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, has been sharply rebuked for what Bloomberg News called "nepotism and conflicts of interest" in its operations. The Port Authority last year collected almost $300 million in bridge tolls, commuter rail fares and other revenue.
In January 2003 the Delaware River Port Authority allocated $500,000 to the Barnes Foundation to help relocate the art collection to Philadelphia. The unusual transit authority grant came almost two years before a local court made a controversial ruling that allowed the move.
A Rutgers University economist said that neither the Delaware Port Authority nor the Barnes had done economic impact studies before the expenditure was approved. Agency commissioners announced Wednesday that the authority will cease doing economic development work unrelated to transportation.