Pennsylvania Judge Hears Arguments (Again) Concerning Barnes Foundation’s New Home

junkyardarts August 3, 2011 4


After years of arguing over the Barnes Foundation collection, and subsequent settling of the case which decided the collection would move to it’s new home (and fancy new building) on Ben Franklin Blvd in Philly and 5 miles from it’s current home, a judge has reopened the case thanks to a citizens group petition.

Regardless of merit, general understanding of how a museum works and a real love of the works contained within the collection.

This whole issue a kind of a clusterfuck.  The Barnes Foundation is a staggering collection of some of the most important artists in history – Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Degas and Cezanne, as well as thousands of other works ranging from African icons to modern masterpieces from Joan Miro. It is worth over 25 Billion dollars.  It is regarded as the world’s most impressive and important private collection and rivals museums three times the size in collection ‘awe’.  It is also a collection housed away from the main tourist arenas in Philly and owned by an endowment that is facing bankruptcy.

The Friends of the Barnes Foundation, the citizens group, is claiming that the judge didn’t have all the information he needed when he ruled in 2004 that the Barnes has the right to move to a new location, and that the then-Attorney General misled the judge in his arguments.  Lawyers for the Barnes Foundation claim the group has no idea what they are talking about and the move is completely necessary for the safety of the collection.  The judge is now evaluating whether or not to reopen this case.

Here’s the issue (amongst the others): “The trust of Barnes, a self-made millionaire who died in a 1951 car crash at age 78, stipulated that his trove of 800 impressionist and postimpressionist masterpieces “remain in exactly the places they are” after his death and gave control of his foundation to Lincoln University, a historically black school in nearby Chester County. “

Those words: remain in exactly the places they are, are extremely important to honor, if only because so many valuable collections and spaces can be commercialized and torn apart without the protection of a clear and direct message from the owner, and subsequently the Board of Directors.  Without such a clause, who’s to say that the collection couldn’t be sold off to pay the bills?


What this clause does not directly help the Board with is the unfortunate issue of revenue.  It is safe to speculate that Barnes did not consider location and economic downturn could threaten the existence of his collection, probably because he intentionally chose the location of the building to be away from the main thrust of the public.  He wanted to keep the building more intimate, and function as an educational facility, but the result of this will be that the collection will be locked away and never again be viewed by the public for educational and inspirational purposes because he demanded it never be moved, loaned or sold.  While the citizens group is arguing that the collection must stay where it is, what other option is there if they are not offering major fundraising, personal donations or membership drives as an option?

Here’s the thing: Nonprofits do not exist because they do not make any money.  There is a reason museums and schools charge admission – it is because they need to pay the bills, maintenance, staffing, etc.  Nonprofits are in the business of helping a cause and following a mission for a specific audience and a specific goal and absolutely intend of making boat loads of cash to keep things running smoothly and improve their offerings.  It’s a business, plain and simple.  Though we will say it is an altruistic business so this doesn’t sound all gloom and doom.

And, well,  The Barnes is going out of business.  For whatever reason (though it is safe to say that lack of revenue is a main factor in addition to zoning issues they are facing) the Foundation is in trouble and the only way to keep it intact and following the mission of the Foundation is to move it to a move visible location and more public awareness.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum faced similar issues when plans for a new addition to the building (planning to open January of 2012) and demolition of a carriage house were underway.  Gardner’s will was similar to Barnes’ in which she stated that the collection and the building must remain as it is forever, and if anything was changed the collection was to be sold off and the funds go to Harvard University.  Again, arguments for the change included fulfilling the Museum’s mission, aiding the community, bringing needed revenue to the Museum and keeping it competitive in the very tough world of New England tourist attractions.

The Gardner faced similar scrutiny from citizen groups, and perhaps the Gardner wasn’t facing such dire circumstances as the Barnes but both demonstrate a community’s fierce protection of treasured local attractions that make the neighborhoods so unique.  And that is a wonderful thing!  But for the love of god people, can’t we just have a calm, collected discussion about these things instead of each side just saying “I’m right and therefore don’t have to acknowledge your concerns”?

Generally, I think the Barnes’ is doing the right thing in relocating – and the deal they got in doing so was not terrible but certainly not ideal:

“The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Lenfest Foundation and The Annenberg Foundation promised to help the Barnes raise $150 million for a new gallery and an endowment when the relocation to Philadelphia was approved. In exchange, Lincoln University ceded control of the foundation’s board of trustees and permitted its new benefactors to appoint their own members.”

Should Lincoln University have had to cede control of the Board?  I don’t think so – I think they should have been able to keep some if not all members on the Board as a show of good faith, but that’s just me.  I’m all about rose colored glasses and happy endings.  But what is the most important issue, one that I think everyone can agree with, is that the Barnes collection is that of such significance it would be a crime to take it from the public view.

Conversely, there is a documentary out about this whole battle, The Art of the Steal, and it is quite interesting, I suggest you take a look.

Yes, we are coming form two opposing points of view but I am more than happy to offer up their opinion as valid – I just don’t happen to agree with them entirely. And you know what? That’s ok.
ArtDaily / The Art of the Steal /


  1. Elsa Dimitriadis August 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm -

    Loved the article. I’m definitely going to check out the documentary asap. It’s such a thorny issue – that of respecting the wishes of the deceased long after they are gone – and I wonder if lawyers should advise that perpetual wishes such as Barnes’ and Gardner’s be written with a bit more flexibility, but still with the intent included (such as Barnes’ wish to serve Philly’s underserved). I am heartened that Barnes’ unique “wall ensembles” are going to be recreated in the new space, and they are building the new building to scale/proportion and with the same configuration of the original buildings. I wish, however, that while it IS necessary in the twenty-first century to increase your Board to 15 from 5 (in order to raise funds), that they had made a more ardent attempt to include all of the Lincoln U board members (of which there were only 4, I believe), or at least specifically seek out notable African American board members. I am concerned that with the shift in focus to financial security, that it will be convenient to forget this important element of Barnes’ wishes. Certainly with such notable alums of Lincoln U, this would be possible. All in all, it seems impossible for wishes made in the 1950s to be fulfilled in perpetuity without some necessary alterations as the world changes. Great article.

  2. Evelyn Yaari August 3, 2011 at 11:54 pm -

    This is a thoughtful post, but it rests on a common mistaken belief that the Barnes was about to expire because of financial problems that had no solution but moving the collection to Philadelphia. There are two reports about this on the “Legal Matters” page of the Friends of the Barnes website http:

    The strategy of the people who wanted to get the collection out of Merion was to present a case so that the Pew/Lenfest/Annenberg deal looked like the only possible way out of a mess. They also blamed the mess mainly on outside forces. A classic case and very deceptive. They blew millions upon millions on legal fights they started. But they left out a few important fundamentals, starting with the fact that the Barnes Foundation never applied to the Township to increase the number of visitors. A community group applied and won permission in 2007 for 144,000 people a year plus school groups.

    In the earlier hearings, the subject of raising the price came up and they said they couldn’t raise the price above $5 or “No one would come.” What?! Since getting permission for the move, they got over their concerns — and more than tripled the price.

    Since they got permission to move, they started doing marketing, a membership program, corporate program, etc., etc. Why didn’t they do that stuff before? I could go on, but the reports will explain it better than I can.

  3. junkyardarts August 4, 2011 at 12:56 am -

    Thank you for the interesting and thoughtful post, Evelyn. I will say that I intentionally did not go into much of the case because it is, frankly, so complicated and rife with emotional turmoil that I wanted to focus really on where it was at now and my thoughts on it going forward.

    I will say that yes, there was serious undermining and MAJOR mismanagement at senior levels of the Board that led to this whole debacle and it is shameful. As an art administrator I find it amazing that the whole financial situation was allowed to get to where it is because of fooling decision making, legal fees and a lack of urgency in seriously proving that funds could be raised in a timely manner to effectively cut off the head of the snake, so to speak. Why on earth the Board was allowed to continue they way they did in the first place is unbelievable – but it’s done.

    I find it rather elitist though, that so many hold this belief that art tourism is somehow undesirable, and that art as a means of commerce immediately negates any other value the tourism may have. It is as elitist as major museums believing that they are the only place to find ‘proper’ art. Barnes’ mission to serve communities who lack the ability to learn about and appreciate fine art, and the foster education through art, can still be achieved in this new location. I think the plan to show Barnes’ collection in the same eclectic manner and in similarly designed areas to the original building is a sign that his vision is not being destroyed but moved to a more visible location. Which, ok, some might say is ‘destroying it’ but I guess I just disagree.

    Tourism for arts sake is not evil, it isn’t something that only the rich take part in and to believe that this is the case is dangerous for the sake of art education as a whole. Would it be best if the Barnes would stay where it was and the Board create a serious and timely fundraising strategy? Of course it would be. But they didn’t do it and no one stopped them from the bullshit they were pulling. At this point, the Foundation has the opportunity to continue the mission of Barnes and I think innumerable amounts of people, demographics and people of socioeconomic status will be able to appreciate this art. There is a compromise here if people were willing to take part in it for the sake of art appreciation.

  4. Evelyn Yaari April 4, 2013 at 7:21 am -

    So happy I came back to your earlier post and your response to my comment, which I hadn’t seen. Sorry that I didn’t come back here before. I think I understand better now what you mean about a perceived conflict between art tourism and preservation in the Barnes case. It’s an unfortunate misunderstanding. The Friends and neighbors have not been against art tourism; they have been FOR art tourism that is designed with respect for authenticity and integrity, that has respect for the local community, that has a long view on financial sustainability — not necessarily in that order of importance. The principles of good governance, of wise public policy, of environmental responsibility were all turned on their heads in the Barnes case, to the loss of the public. What is the good of putting the collection on the Parkway in an expensive building where costs make it necessary to process as many people through as quickly as possible? I just learned that the audio tours are being re-done, shortened to help achieve that end. The new ones will be free, but they will cover significantly fewer paintings. It is a very inferior experience at a much higher cost.

    The Friends pleaded for a shuttle bus that would make the real Barnes more accessible, would take visitors through gorgeous Fairmount Park on a 12-minute ride to the authentic Barnes, a place that had a miniscule budget problem. The Friends pleaded with the Annenberg Foundation to help organize a partnership between the Barnes and the PMA, with the latter organizing ticket reservations and more. Wiser use of limited resources, in other words.