Critic’s notebook: John Anderson sheds new light on Barnes’ bad move

Now that the Barnes Foundation has been in its conventional, museum-like new building in downtown Philadelphia for more than a year, one local critic is having second thoughts about the place.

Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward Sozanski recently wrote that the Barnes used to be “a completely integrated experience involving architecture, horticulture and the presentation of the art.” That was when its great Post-Impressionist, early Modern and African art collection was in its historic home five miles away in suburban Merion.

Now, as just one more downtown tourist site lined up on the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Barnes “presents itself more as a historical artifact in an artificial, and not especially resonant, environment.”

That’s no surprise, as any historic preservationist knows.

The ineffable qualities of an original built environment cannot be artificially manufactured. Partial duplication of the interior spaces of a historic site, adding visitor amenities and better lighting as the new Barnes did, just doesn’t cut it.

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But the deed is done. The Barnes is moved, and there’s no use crying over spilled milk any longer. The greatest American cultural monument of the 20th century’s first half is no more.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it isn’t useful — and important — to know as many details as possible about how the travesty happened. John Anderson’s “Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection” is the go-to book for that. Published a decade ago, while the traumatic events were still unfolding and about a year before the 2004 court rulings that set the relocation in motion, it still makes for painfully informative reading.

A welcome paperback edition of the book is just out from W.W. Norton. It adds a startling epilogue. With new information, Anderson points a damning finger in the general direction of two players in the saga.

One, if not entirely unknown, certainly operated well under the radar in earlier accounts of the story — including Anderson’s own.

Unless you live in Pennsylvania — or are an avid student of national crime news — you might not know of Vincent J. Fumo. He’s the once-powerful, longtime Pennsylvania state senator, a leader of the local Democratic machine, who was convicted in 2009 on 137 counts of political corruption and later sentenced to five years in federal prison.

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In “Art Held Hostage,” Anderson described him as “A porkbarreler in the great Philadelphia tradition ... who took care of friends and enemies with considerable zeal.” Fumo turned up here and there in the book’s narrative as a person of influence in the long Barnes saga, if typically in a minor role.

In “The Wrecker’s Ball,” Anderson’s aptly titled new epilogue, Fumo steps to the foreground. His wide-reaching criminal conviction on all manner of elaborate fiscal schemes — many involving complex manipulations of a nonprofit charity and a local history museum — seems to have prompted another look.

One slab of pork in the Fumo barrel may well have been $100 million to build a new Barnes building in Philadelphia, tucked into a state appropriation bill for fiscal year 2001-02. First reported in The Times, Pennsylvania surreptitiously set aside funds to move the Barnes collection downtown years before a judge’s ruling allowed it.

Fumo, then co-chairman of the appropriations committee, has long been thought to be a possible source of the never-used funds. Anderson doesn’t offer definitive proof. (Released early from prison on good behavior a few weeks ago, perhaps Fumo will be forthcoming on the subject in the future.) But he adds heft to the speculation by charting a remarkable web of previously unidentified connections between a scandal involving a powerful regional energy company, a charity controlled by the state senator — and Fumo and Richard Glanton, the ambitious president of the Barnes Foundation during its unraveling.

You won’t find any of that in Neil L. Rudenstine’s ponderous book, “The House of Barnes: The Man, the Collection, the Controversy,” published last November by Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society. Rudenstine is a Barnes trustee. “House” could be called the house-version of what happened — a semi-official tale.

Rudenstine is good on the documents related to the art collection’s development since the 1910s — except, that is, for his almost complete omission of the centrality of African art to Albert C. Barnes’ expanding aesthetic vision. He also ably charts the cantankerous collector’s flawed provisions for his legacy, following his untimely 1951 death.

On “the controversy” over moving, however, he’s embarrassing.

Rudenstine has clearly gleaned a lot of basic facts from reading “Art Held Hostage,” cited in his source list. But he concocts a belief in conspiracy theory supposedly held among those who opposed the move and who watched establishment forces line up to make it happen.

Faced with that lazy claim, readers will have dark visions of a secret Star Chamber pulling all the strings from deep in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum of Art dancing in their heads. It’s a condescending tool of ridicule, used to airily wave away honorable dissenters.

The Barnes was nearly broke, and Rudenstine’s primary explanation for the move downtown is that rational minds came to understand that a big-city location offered a far larger donor pool than little Merion. (He describes the township as “remote,” as if trekking the five-mile distance between the old and new sites is akin to voyaging to Timbuktu.) Seen clearly, Rudenstine insists, the move into the city was essential in order to tap into abundant philanthropic resources.

Anderson’s new epilogue throws a monkey wrench into that assertion.

Pew Charitable Trusts was one of three big Philadelphia foundations instrumental in engineering the move. Citing an unnamed former executive at L.A.'s J. Paul Getty Trust — where, coincidentally, Rudenstine is also now a trustee — Anderson reports that Pew warned the Getty away from considering a full-scale rescue plan, “lest they be denounced as interlopers from afar.”

A philanthropy across the country — one with considerable clout — was not, it seems, indifferent to solving the dilemma of the poor “remote” Barnes.

Anderson explains that a ravaged endowment was the only real problem the Barnes faced. He’s right. And a genuine rescue plan could have provided whatever leverage was necessary to restructure its operation in Merion.

Rudenstine writes that somewhere between $70 million and $90 million was needed for a fully satisfactory endowment. Instead, to pry the Barnes’ fabulous art collection loose and move it to a tourist site downtown, Anderson notes that local philanthropies spearheaded funding that totaled somewhere between $150 million and $250 million. Historic preservation was not their goal.

Indeed, had Pew and its charitable cohort had any interest in historic preservation, they could have made it happen for the Barnes. It would not have been easy. Historic preservation is among the toughest of all cultural issues, since capitalist societies driven by grow-or-die notions of progress have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea. But moving wasn’t easy either.

To understand how collusion is irrelevant to the Barnes narrative, Rudenstine might benefit from perusing the 267-page Fumo indictment. A mere convergence of establishment motives can easily create less than salutary results. Moving the epic cultural treasure was no mean feat, but conspiracy was hardly required to accomplish it.

Anderson’s book takes us into the kitchen, where we watch the sausage being made. Rudenstine’s is content to stay out in the dining room, folding linen napkins and polishing the silver.