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The Relocation of the Barnes Foundation Gets a Second Green Light

by Liza Eliano on October 7, 2011

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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  • Victoria Skelly

    Judge Ott has not considered evidence in this case. He held a “hearing” without a court reporter to review arguments to reopen the case. The Friends’ arguments against the Move to date have NOT been heard in Court because twice Judge Ott has ruled that the Friends of the Barnes have no standing.

    All those who wish to bequeath art collections to a museum should take careful notice of this!

  • Daniel Larkin

    first of all, this is an argument over an art collection not an argument over a bloody war or the cost of AIDS drugs, so such strong moralistic language seems a little overkill. i don’t think there is a wrong or right choice here. times change and money talks. if they barnes people say they can’t afford the suburbs, then let them move it downtown. I will say that the house in merion is one of the best day trips I ever took. and on top of the paintings, there is a stellar collection of cast iron pieces. but the art will also shine in its new building.  

  • Victoria Skelly

    It is interesting that Mr. Larkin raises the issue of the cost of AIDS drugs, obstensibly to belittle the importance of the arts to society in comparison to healing. As it happens I remember hearing in my workplace the arguments pro and con on whether to pursue tackling the extremely tough  scientific puzzle that AIDS presented science back then.  Would not our research $$ have been better spent pursuing the next hair loss regimen? Why risk millions and millions to pursue what might not be possible to cure? It would perpetuate the happiness of sooooo many more people to pursue the product that would have produced the larger market.
    The better angels were talking to those Big Pharma decision makers back then, and after millions in investment, late hours at the microscope and such, breakthroughs came. It was not an easy journey. I would like to suggest that great art and the sensitive perception of it like great science requires an environment quite unlike the one Mr. Larkin envisions as good enough. 

    What has been lost with the Move is hard to quantify, because the the Barnes Foundation philosophy in its physical expression at the Merion site sought to provide individuals from all walks of life not merely an entertainment experience, but inspiration to pursue their potential. That is what great art CAN do. So few who spout convictions about the rightness of the Move know about this aspect of the Foundation legacy. To learn more about the political and philosophical underpinnings of Barnes Foundation, interested individuals may read Robert Zaller’s essay in the Fall 2011 issue of the literary magazine, “Boulevard”…read this so you will BEGIN to know just what has been lost, and why a faux Barnes on the Parkway so decidedly falls short of Albert Barnes’ vision.

    Why couldn’t the better angels have been consulted when Philadelphia’s politicians and philanthropists so decidedly opted for a Move? The siren songs of profits, tourism related jobs, filled hotel rooms, $20 entrance fees, and newer and more restaurants must have drowned out any tune an angel might sing.The evidence has shown that not only is the Move decidedly what the donor did NOT want, and that the Foundation was NOT in such dire straits as to require a move, but further, a Move to the city could not possibly be sustainable in the long run. Ask our “bankrupt” Orchestra in Philadelphia about local support for a world class institution. Find out if that supposed 10,000 figure of new members to the “Barnes Society” (are these families who are counting their dogs as members too?) if they will be willing to shell out $200 plus per year, consistently again and again to keep the Barnes in the city in sufficient cash.

    It is not very consoling that for the price Philadelphians paid to keep “The Gross Clinic” out of Alice Walton’s hands, we could have endowed the Barnes in Merion, and for the price that Philadephia’s philanthropists and Pennsylvania’s taxpayers have paid to move the Barnes, they could have offered free admission to all visitors to Merion. Now THAT would have been a real vote of confidence in favor of art and art education.

    If readers have energy to consider even more “moralizing” on this subject, they are welcome to read my post on this subject at http://www.phillyartmuse.blogspot.com.

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