Now Museum, Now You Don't

A May fund-raiser at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, on Philadelphia's Main Line, drew some 300 people for cocktails and an auction for trips to Europe and dinner for 20 at the foundation in the main gallery, ringed by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cezanne masterpieces. Drinks and donor perks feed the museum trade-off culture (although responsible curators won't let red wine near Cezanne's Card Players). Yet for the Barnes, the scene was odd: Donor-stroking was never the culture of the Foundation, which has always favored art-appreciation classes over blockbuster shows and gala glut. Has the Barnes sold out?

Selling out understates the crisis. The Barnes Foundation is moving to a culture mall in central Philadelphia, into a new building that may cost $200 million. A state judge permitted the forced migration after the Barnes management, with lawyers funded by local foundations, pleaded that its current building and belligerent neighbors hindered the visitor flow that its bottom line required. The Barnes' gang of allies clinched the deal with a political offer: Philadelphia, which is donating land from a juvenile jail; Governor Ed Rendell, who made key opponents step aside; Big Charity; the Lenfest and Annenberg foundations, and the Pew Charitable Trusts; the ever-boosterish Philadelphia Inquirer. Yet good news for the civic dream team was bad news for art -- a new McBarnes dooms a unique art experience.

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Until 1990, the Barnes operated quietly. It took visitors on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only; they paid $1 to see more than 60 paintings by Cezanne and more than 180 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Matisse's magisterial 1906 Joy of Life -- which egged Picasso on to paint his Demoiselles d'Avignon -- is there, atop a stairwell. So is Georges Seurat's Models, a deadpan backstage look at the women who posed for the artist's ode to bourgeois leisure Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte. The wall arrangements were by Albert Barnes himself, the patent-medicine mogul, killed in a 1951 car crash, who clustered pictures, floor to ceiling, based on formal affinities rather than chronology. Between the frames, he filled room after room with African sculpture, Pennsylvania Dutch objects, and metal joints and hinges.

Unfashionable then, it's still a unique world away from the museum cattle drive to pay for new buildings or shoulder the costs of running them. Barnes distrusted the larger art world that coveted his pictures, now worth some $25 billion. His will mandated that his wall arrangements stay the same. It banned sales and loans of art, and prohibited social gatherings. Through the 1980s, the place ran in the black on $1.1 million a year. The Barnes was all about its founder, and all about art -- no gift shop, no restaurant, no crowds.

Dr. Barnes never envisioned a museum, but a foundation for affordable art appreciation. After his death, a legal campaign by The Philadelphia Inquirer and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania forced the foundation to set regular visiting hours.

Soon, internal governance took a curious twist. In a dig at local gentry, Barnes willed that after the trustees he appointed died, the power to name four out of five board members would go to Lincoln University, a small, historically African American institution in rural Chester County near Merion. By the late 1980s, Lincoln's appointees were in control.

That's when things began to change. Lincoln appointees named a new president, Richard Glanton, who quickly announced a plan to raise $20 million by selling art. A black Republican corporate lawyer who eyed elected office, Glanton saw that paintings like those in the Barnes were breaking auction records at Sotheby's; selling seemed simpler than fund raising. His gambit brought the Barnes shame, though, because selling art for any purpose besides buying more art violates museum ethics. It also broke with the founder's instructions, as did a tour of Barnes paintings organized by the National Gallery of Art and other museums in 1993 through 1996.

The campaigns to sell and tour Barnes paintings had a populist flourish; so does today's plan to uproot the whole collection. The billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg backed Glanton, who motored from his law firm to the galleries in a large black Mercedes. Their official aim was democratizing the art audience and liberating a collection locked behind iron gates by an elitist crank. Besides, Annenberg said, the Renoirs at the Barnes were bad, and the 1925 limestone villa by Paul Cret was a “rabbit warren.” The real message was clear: The $4 billion collection (in 1990 prices) was too valuable to be benefiting a few students and the occasional visiting aesthete.

With support and money from museums hungry to show that art, Glanton added as many cities as he could to the Barnes tour, which drew huge crowds wherever it went. Critics who said he was wringing every last penny out of loans that Dr. Barnes had banned were, Glanton said, “racists.” So were neighbors in Merion who opposed the construction of a huge parking lot in the residential area. He eventually filed a civil-rights suit against the township, dismissed as baseless by a judge whom Glanton called “the stupidest bitch on the federal bench” (not your typical gallery whisper). Before Glanton left town and the Barnes board for a Chicago energy conglomerate, lawsuits had cost the foundation millions of dollars. His art goldmine never panned out. Renovation overruns ate up much of the tour money. Litigation eroded the endowment.

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In 1998, the Barnes Foundation hired Kimberly Camp, a former Smithsonian manager who was a director of the African-American Museum in Detroit at the time. Camp scrambled -- with meager success -- to raise money from foundations and announced that the Barnes, which ran in the black for decades, was going broke. Slashing budgets was too logical. As deficits persisted, she and her board hatched a novel solution: Three local foundations -- the Lenfest Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts -- would provide “bridge financing” for all expenses, about $2 million a year in operating costs, if (and only if) the Barnes agreed to move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Big Charity now controlled the Barnes.

The foundation couldn't raise its own budget, yet Camp said only $150 million for a building and an endowment could sustain it, as township limits on the number of visitors locked the Barnes in deficit mode.

She also sought to expand the foundation's board from five to 15, favoring money people, not Lincoln appointees. On her side were the three foundations funding the Barnes, plus Philadelphia's mayor, Pennsylvania's governor and attorney general, the Philadelphia Museum of Art -- and the Inquirer, boosterish to the end, daring its city to achieve “world-class” status. From the sidelines, Richard Glanton smirked at the sanctimony of a noble cultural mission. “It's about the control of billions of dollars of art,” he said. “Everything else is bullshit.”

Lincoln University, blindsided by the long-planned maneuver, cried racism (even though Camp and most of the Barnes' Lincoln-appointed board members are black). Without much of any art program, Lincoln had struggled to benefit from its Barnes connection. Its threat to sue didn't last long. When Governor Rendell promised to restore budget cuts and raise $150 million for the school's endowment, Lincoln joined the team.

Opponents of the move went to court, but in December 2004, a state judge vacated crucial restrictions that Albert Barnes imposed. Official Philadelphia, seeing its eventual bounty, was gleeful.

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Increasing the audience for art in a central location to projections of more than 200,000 (from around 60,000) is tempting. Who wouldn't want to see great works by Matisse and Cezanne? But at what price? Officially, a new McBarnes will replicate the current room configuration of galleries and wall clusters, just some 25 percent to 30 percent larger. But if the displays of the work in institutions that borrowed Barnes pictures are any indication, paintings will be spread out on the walls so that crowds can gather. It's hard to imagine that the spirit of the Barnes approach won't be sacrificed for the tourist flow needed to pay the bills. Just twist the Vietnam-era mantra: We had to destroy the foundation in order to bring the tourists in.

So much for donor intent. Who pities the hard-nosed Albert Barnes, or rich art collectors, writing their wills today, who view with chagrin the dismantling of the Barnes? Analysts of the nonprofit economy, like Marie Malaro, an expert witness critical of the Barnes move, say the judge ignored the law to enlist (and straitjacket) the Barnes into a civic economic-development scheme. An appeal of his decision was fast tracked and defeated.

The goal seems clear now: a mega-destination where the maximum number of visitors can see “branded” paintings worth billions, and then buy calendars or key chains and drop more cash on hotels, restaurants, and parking garages. When Michelangelo's Pieta came to the New York World's Fair in 1964, visitors to the Vatican Pavilion in Flushing Meadow viewed the sculpture from a conveyor belt -- ridiculous, but not so unusual. When “French Masterpieces from the Barnes Collection” traveled to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1994, visitors who dared to sketch -- or even take notes -- in front of a Cezanne or Matisse were ordered by guards to move on. News of this rule's strong-armed enforcement didn't shame the museum's director. He was hired soon after to run the Museum of Modern Art.

As the McBarnes bandwagon revs up in Philadelphia, arts groups, as always, are scrambling for crumbs. Yet the public and private sectors now foresee a $200 million home for an art collection that already has a home. Have they seen museums all over the country canceling “destination” buildings that they can't fund, and firing directors blinded by architecture? If, as many suspect, the Barnes fails to raise $200 million, it still has an exit strategy. The Barnes' court petition asked the judge to strike Barnes' ban on selling paintings. Here's the future headline: “Will Barnes Auction Revive Cultural Tourism?”

David D'Arcy is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper, a London monthly, and a contributing editor for Art + Auction.