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Fate of Barnes’ artworks in limbo

Times Staff Writer

Trustees of the cash-strapped Barnes Foundation who requested court approval to move the foundation’s multibillion-dollar art collection from an affluent suburb of Philadelphia to the center of the city have been sent back to the drawing board. Judge Stanley Ott of Montgomery County Orphans’ Court on Thursday granted the trustees’ request to increase board membership from five to 15, but ordered them to formulate a business plan for the proposed move and investigate alternative solutions to the foundation’s financial problems.

“There has not been adequate showing that sufficient revenue cannot be generated by other means,” Judge Ott wrote in his ruling. “We need to be persuaded that the move to Philadelphia is the least drastic deviation that will stabilize the foundation’s future.”

The proposed move is a hot-button issue in the art world because it would overturn the will of art collector and pharmaceuticals mogul Albert C. Barnes, who established the foundation as an educational institution and decreed that the artworks remain on view exactly as he placed them. Characterized by some opponents as a hostile takeover and a power play, the move would also open the door to financial aid that is only available if the collection moves to a more accessible, tourist-friendly location.

Three Philadelphia-based charities -- the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annenberg Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation -- have promised to help the Barnes raise $150 million, $100 million for the relocation and $50 million for the endowment. Plans call for installing the collection in a new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum, on the city-owned site of a juvenile justice center that is slated for demolition.

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The Barnes Foundation’s art holding is widely considered the best private collection in the country and one of the nation’s finest selections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art. Valued at $6.5 billion by the foundation -- and at $25 billion to $30 billion by Pew Charitable Trusts -- the 9,000-piece collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, 14 Modiglianis and an eclectic assortment of fine and decorative artworks from all around the world.

Moving the collection to downtown Philadelphia “has been floated as the only lifeboat in the entire sea,” Ott said in his ruling. He dismissed the “single-option theory” as “the product of zealous advocacy” on the part of the charities, which footed the Barnes Foundation’s legal bills during the hearings. The judge also chided the state attorney general for supporting the petition before the hearings took place, effectively preventing the court from seeing a balanced view of the situation.

“Fact-finding in this case has been seriously hamstrung by the total absence of hard numbers in evaluating these proposals,” Ott wrote. “We have only a preliminary ‘guesstimate’ about the real cost of constructing the new venue. We have no concept of the foundation’s operating expense at the new space.”

Established in 1922, the Barnes Foundation oversees Barnes’ art collection and affiliated educational programs in art and horticulture on a 13-acre estate in Merion, Pa., about 10 miles north of central Philadelphia.

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The collection is displayed in an elegant, two-story gallery in accordance with an eccentric aesthetic theory developed by Barnes with philosopher John Dewey. Mixing French Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces with everything from European hardware and Pennsylvania Dutch furniture to African sculpture and Chinese paintings, he designed symmetrical arrangements that emphasize formal relationships among disparate objects.

At his death in 1951, Barnes left a detailed will, stipulating that the artworks remain exactly as he placed them and that they never be moved or loaned. But other provisions of the will jeopardized his wishes for the collection. He endowed the foundation with $10 million but required that the funds be invested in government securities -- a conservative strategy that could not keep pace with rising operating costs. Barnes entrusted the governance of the foundation to Lincoln University, a small, historically black institution in Oxford, Pa., which had no experience in managing a major art collection.

The foundation’s location, in a wealthy community whose residents don’t want an art school or gallery in their neighborhood, also created problems. Local zoning regulations limit attendance to 400 people three days a week, severely restricting income from visitors. The addition of a parking lot and attempts to increase attendance have led to costly lawsuits.

After several years of legal wrangling, during the tenure of attorney Richard Glanton, who headed the foundation from 1990 to 1998, the current Barnes trustees devised a plan to put the foundation on a new course. Relying on a legal concept that allows a charitable trust to alter its operating rules if compliance prevents the trust from carrying out its mission -- and arguing that Barnes did not anticipate the foundation’s current problems -- the trustees last September filed a petition, asking the court to ease restrictions of the will. Lincoln University initially opposed the move but relinquished control of the Barnes when the foundations threatened to pull out and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell stepped in with state funding for the financially strapped university.

Ott presided over a four-day hearing on the matter in early December. Barnes’ attorneys claimed that the collection must move for the foundation to remain viable. Opponents, granted “friend of the court” standing, argued that the trustees had not seriously explored less drastic options, including selling a 137-acre property in Chester County owned by the foundation; increasing the $5 entry fee; selling some of the artworks that are in storage; mounting traveling exhibitions; and loaning individual works from the collection in return for a portion of the proceeds.

Thursday’s ruling was greeted as good news by both advocates and opponents of the move.

Gaining approval to expand the board is “fabulous,” said foundation director Kimberly Camp, and the judge’s request for facts and figures is “a modicum of a nod” to the plan to relocate. “We will do a thorough job and give the judge what he asked for,” she said.

On the other side, “we are quite pleased that the judge had the same concerns we raised at the hearings,” said Philadelphia attorney Howard M. Cyr, who represented Barnes students opposing the move.

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No timetable has been set for the next step. The Barnes board will meet next week to discuss the ruling, Camp said.


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