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The Relocation of the Barnes Foundation Gets a Second Green Light

A gallery at the Barnes Foundation at its orginial location in Merion, Pennsylvania (photo by Tim Shaffer via latimes.com)

Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, will now also boast one of the world’s most impressive art collections. Forbes reported today that Judge Stanley Ott upheld his ruling that allows the Barnes Foundation to move its estimated $25 billion art collection from the suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania five miles away to downtown Philadelphia. Ott initially approved the move in 2004, but his decision was met with sever opposition, especially from a citizens group called Friends of the Barnes who feel that relocating the collection goes against everything  its founder, Albert C. Barnes, stood for.

Barnes ordered in his will that his collection, which includes works by pretty much any late 19 or early 20th century European master you can think of (Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Soutine, Rousseau, Modigliani, Monet, Degas, van Gogh, Seurat and Manet to name but a few), never be moved from his estate in Merion. Yet back in 2002 the Barnes Foundation began a legal battle to scrap Barnes’ wishes, claiming that the foundation would go bankrupt if it did not move from their secluded Merion location. Admirers of the Barnes and art-lovers alike cried out in response. In a long-winded essay titled, “No Museum Left Behind,” art critic Lance Esplund sums up the main opposing argument to the move, namely that the original location and display of the collection is just as, if not more, important than the masterpieces themselves.

The site of the Barnes Foundation's new museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia (photo via barnesfoundation.org) (click to enlarge)

According to the LA Times, Friends of the Barnes recently petitioned Ott to reconsider his decision on the grounds that Pennsylvania’s then attorney general, Mike Fisher, helped engineer the move and “didn’t carry out a responsibility to prevent Barnes’ will from being violated.” The group based these accusations on comments Fisher made in the 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal, which chronicled the controversies surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s move to Philadelphia. Judge Ott’s decision to reject this evidence means that the construction and transfer of the collection to a new museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway will continue as planned. The museum is expected to open to the public on May 19, 2012 and will stay open 60 hours straight over Memorial Day Weekend. It’s pretty clear that Friends of the Barnes have lost this battle, but Friends spokeswoman Evelyn Yaari told Forbes, “The dismantling of the Barnes is as wrong now as it always has been…someone has to stand up for the truth, and that is what we will continue to do.”

Whether the Barnes Foundation is simply looking to profit off the collection (the foundation has gone from 400 museum members to over 10,000 since the relocation began), or is truly committed to preserving its history is up for debate, but at least the collection is now in a place where more people will have access to it. One question that remains is just how much that access will cost visitors.

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