September 27, 1988
Last Tuesday afternoon about 2:30, the failing heart of Violette de Mazia, 89, finally stopped, setting into motion a series of events that will have a profound impact on the future of one of the world's greatest art collections, the Barnes Foundation's.
To her students at the foundation's school, to visitors to the gallery and to the curious public, de Mazia was long emblematic of the fascinating, perplexing and controversial Barnes Foundation and its fabulous collection.
Now, trustees and others associated with the foundation are faced with what one trustee calls "the most important event that has happened to the foundation since Albert Barnes died" 37 years ago and left behind a code of restrictions binding what some authorities have termed the most comprehensive assemblage of impresssionist art in the world.
Months before his death in 1951, Dr. Albert C. Barnes removed the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania from an indenture of trust that he had drawn up, and instead designated Lincoln University, a small, obscure, historically black college in Chester County, to appoint trustees to the foundation as vacancies occur. The death of de Mazia means that longtime Barnes trustees have just lost their majority control over the foundation's five-member board.
It also marks the beginning of an era in which Lincoln, heretofore not much connected with art and not much known outside of the Philadelphia area, will have effective control over the foundation and over one of the world's great art collections.
The foundation consists of a school and a 12-acre arboretum, but is best- known for the art collection, which one trustee estimates to be worth in excess of $1 billion.
On the walls of the French Renaissance chateau on Latches Lane in Merion are more than 1,000 works including major works by the most important 19th- and early 20th-century artists: 180 Renoirs, 60 Cezannes, van Goghs, Gauguins, Picassos, and one of Matisse's largest murals, commissioned for the gallery by Barnes.
Little has changed at the reclusive foundation since Barnes, the multi- millionaire inventor of the silver-nitrate antiseptic Argyrol, died at the age of 79, leaving a detailed trust indenture forbidding the sale, loan, or copying of the collection and insisting that it be hung precisely as he left it, often three high on a wall or high above door frames.
The indenture also restricted visitors to the collection to two days a week until 1966 - and even then only if written permission were obtained. Thereafter, Barnes instructed that only approved art students and instructors were to be admitted five days a week and the public on Saturdays - restrictions bitterly fought in court by the state attorney general. In 1960, the foundation signed a consent order to admit the public without admission cards on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Appointed trustee in 1935, de Mazia was the last board member named by Barnes, the irascible collector who feuded with Philadelphia art and education institutions for decades, and who set the art world on its ear in the early part of this century, when he started amassing one of the largest collections of modern art. At times he paid prices as low as $40 apiece for works by Chaim Soutine, whom he was credited with discovering.
"This (the death of de Mazia) is tremendous change," said David W. Rawson, a trust banker appointed to the Barnes Foundation five years ago by Mellon Bank.
"As far as the spiritual leader of the Barnesian school of art appreciation, her passing from the scene is going to just really change the whole equation. The last living link to Dr. Barnes himself has been broken. It is now the second generation Barnes disciples who are going to be carrying the banner philosophically as far as school is concerned.
"As far as interaction with the Philadelphia community, there is no question that Miss de Mazia herself was involved in the estrangement between the Barnes Foundation and the community. "
POLICIES MAY CHANGE
Rawson predicted: "The people coming to the board will have an orientation that is broader than just a Barnes orientation. These people are going to have a very different view of what Barnes means, and about taking such a hard line about never granting interviews, never lending pieces to museums, never publishing a book about Barnes. All those longstanding policies may very well change. "
Rawson said one of the first things a Lincoln University-dominated board of trustees might do is publish a color catalogue of the Barnes collection, possibly with profits and credit going to the university - an event that is likely to contribute to 19th-century art scholarship around the world.
"I think it is a bit arbitrary to not even allow a decent book to be published with good color pictures," he said. "I don't think there's anything in the indenture about this. This is what the trustees alone have decided that he wanted. "
Not everyone involved agrees with Rawson. Both Lincoln University and Barnes Foundation officials were quick to say last week that nothing would necessarily change, and that because Lincoln had the power to nominate trustees did not mean that the university would be running the foundation.
"The foundation will continue as it has," said Sidney W. Frick, trustee since 1957 and president of the Barnes Foundation, charged with running its daily operations. "As far as appointees for the board of trustees, Lincoln's function is simply an appointing function," said Frick. "Once on the board, that person is obligated to carry out the objectives of the Barnes Foundation" as they are spelled out in the original indenture of trust.
Lincoln University officials also say they have no interest in assuming control in any way over the Barnes Foundation. Franklin Williams, a prominent New York lawyer, former ambassador to Ghana and chairman of the board of Lincoln University, said in an interview, "I reject the notion that because Lincoln University designates the trustees to be elected that it follows that Lincoln University 'controls' the foundation. It does not. The board does. "
Williams, who expressed an interest in serving on the Barnes board, said he would probably convene a search committee to find a successor to de Mazia in the next few weeks. "It would not be my intention to select people who would perceive themselves to be under obligation to the university. "
He added that assuming control of the Barnes Foundation would be "a big obligation . . . What we are interested in is developing Lincoln University into an excellent educational institution. "
Lincoln, the first American black institution of higher education, is a set in the rolling hills of Chester County and is a small, liberal-arts college with 1,200 students and an endowment of $4.7 million. It boasts notable alumni who include Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice; Kwame Nkrumah, first premier and president of Ghana, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, a president of Nigeria. Founded in 1854, the university at one time had a medical and law school and a school of theology. It currently offers a graduate program in social welfare.
Both Rawson and others associated with the foundation interpret the trust indenture as giving Lincoln effective control - if the university wants it.
NO PLAN OF ACTION
Right now, board members of Lincoln University say they have no plan of action and have never held even a meeting to discuss what they should do. Williams, for one, said he's never even been to the Barnes Foundation.
But privately, even before de Mazia's death, board members were already discussing possibilities - for instance, whether to run shuttle buses between Lincoln University and the Barnes school; whether they could hold classes at the foundation; or whether to endow a chair in Lincoln's art department, which now consists of one full-time faculty member.
Williams theorized that Lincoln itself would not become involved in the operation of the Barnes Foundation, but that the foundation could undergo a process that has happened at other foundations as their benefactors' influence lessens over time: They become professionalized, hiring accomplished personnel in the foundation field.
THE OLD GUARD
No immediate changes are likely - two longtime Barnes appointments still remain on the board. Last week, Frick and Joe Langran, a landscape architect and old friend of the Barnes family - both in their 70s - said they had no plans to retire from the board, despite the fact that they will no longer hold a majority.
Barnes gave lifetime appointments to the original board of five trustees, all of them long-devoted friends and retainers. All were able to choose replacements for board members who died or retired, up until the 1966 death of Laura Barnes, his wife. After that, Barnes' indenture of trust specified, replacements had to follow a specific order: One seat was to be occupied by a trust banker from Girard Bank, now Mellon. The rest were to be chosen by Lincoln University as they became open. In 1967, Lincoln appointed its first trustee, who has since died and been replaced twice. The post is currently held by Benjamin Amos, a black Washington attorney.
Immediate answers to several questions about the fate of the collection can be found in the indenture, which ruled out the possibility that the Barnes collection could be broken up, moved or even sold in part.
A newly comprised board of trustees appointed by Lincoln, however, may want to interpret the trust indenture in a different fashion, or even petition Orphans Court, which oversees trusts and charitable institutions in Pennsylvania, to break or reform the indenture's restrictions.
The Barnes trustees have already done so once, to be permitted to raise salaries for some of themselves and the foundation's employees. In 1969 they petitioned Orphans Court in Montgomery County to raise wages for the foundation's employees, arguing that they weren't able to keep gardeners for the arboretum or teachers and other employees.
The trust indenture specified, for instance, that teachers were "not to be paid from the Foundation funds more than $5,000 a year," that gardeners receive salaries "not to exceed $2,000 per annum" and that gallery attendants receive $3,000 per year.
FOUNDED FOR TEACHING
Barnes formed the foundation as a nonprofit educational institution in 1922 to teach his theories of aesthetic art appreciation, based on the ideas of philosopher John Dewey. At the time Dewey was viewed as radical and unorthodox, but his teachings have become accepted in mainstream education, just as Barnes' collection is now viewed as brilliant.
When Barnes first exhibited his collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1923, it was denounced by the Philadelphia art establishment as degenerate, deranged and scandalous.
After decades of feuding with Philadelphia's mainstream educational institutions and writing them in and out of his will, Barnes settled on Lincoln as the final determiner of the future of the Barnes Foundation in October 1950, nine months before he drove through a red light and was killed instantly by a tractor-trailer. He added the proviso that "no trustee shall be a member of the faculty or Board of Trustees or Directors of the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Bryn Mawr, Haverford or Swarthmore Colleges, or Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "
Why he chose Lincoln is unknown - perhaps to thumb his nose one last time at the Main Line, perhaps because of his genuine lifelong interest in black culture that began as he grew up poor in Kensington, and attended Negro spiritual concerts.
SNUBBING THE MAIN LINE
He built the foundation building in 1925, and thereafter admitted only his chosen guests. He seemed to delight in snubbing art critics, collectors, and anyone else who incurred his often vitriolic wrath, which he spewed forth verbally and in dozens of public letters. He refused admission to millionaire industrialist Walter Chrysler and insulted James Michener, yet saved his special insults for the Main Line establishment.
When a housing development was proposed next door to the foundation in 1927, Barnes threatened to turn the foundation into a center for black education and to give his paintings to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the Philadelphia Museum of Art bought a Cezanne in 1937 for $110,000, Barnes derided it as "a sucker deal" for a "fifth-rate" painting.
But the art world soon came to recognize that Barnes was, indeed, on the cutting edge in recognizing artists who would soon outprice even old masters - in the last year, van Gogh's Irises brought $53.9 million at auction, the current record. Impressionist art is now regarded as the hottest properties in the art business.
A WONDER OF THE WORLD
Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and now editor of Connoisseur magazine, wrote about the Barnes collection in a recent article on America's best art collectors: "Some of the old masters are laughable, but the Courbets and the impressionists are quite simply the best in the world. " The Barnes collection is "one of the wonders of the world," proclaimed Joseph Rishel, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator of European paintings before 1900, in a recent Inquirer article. "The Matisses are 'glory,' a first-rate group. The Renoirs and Cezannes are the best anywhere, and to understand the work of either painter, a student of art must make a pilgrimage to the Barnes. "
Under the reign of de Mazia, the French-born art director of the foundation's school whose lectures won her devoted alumni, and Frick, president of the foundation, a lawyer whose father had been a trustee and friend of Barnes, the Barnes Foundation has continued to operate in its eccentric and isolated fashion, declining to enter the modern age of museum management or to make associations with other institutions.
Paintings are exhibited without labels or any other information other than a plaque on the frame bearing the artist's last name. Although many of the paintings are considered to be among artists' major works, they have never been reproduced in color slides for books and lectures at universities, although some black-and-white plates have appeared in volumes written by Barnes himself.
Rawson has already unsuccessfully pressed the board to vote for several changes that would bring lightning bolts of change into the foundation. He said he had clashed with Frick and de Mazia over whether to seek court permission to reform one part of the trust indenture and loosen up other parts - disagreements that are likely to be amplified now that the Barnes appointees no longer have majority control to vote down such suggestions.
Rawson said he had frequently argued at board meetings for a more open attitude to the press and public - partly to combat the negative publicity he said had crept around the foundation, much of which was more legend and myth than reality, but which had gone uncountered by the foundation as Barnes' officials had declined interviews and refused cooperation with various biographers.
A new board of trustees seems certain to enforce the provisions of the trust agreement that says the foundation "shall after the death of Donor, employ an art director . . . whose function shall be to supervise the gallery, to see that the paintings are properly cared for. " The trust also instructs that "all buildings and improvements of Donee shall at all times be kept in first-class order and repair. "
During the lifetime of de Mazia, there was no art director and she and Frick disagreed with Rawson over maintenance.
In the art world, the Barnes collection has long been viewed as needing more care. "Violette de Mazia was very reluctant to do much conservation work which might in any way alter existing tones of an object," said Robert Montgomery Scott, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "She was very, very conservative about it, more so than we, because we recognize that with the passage of time and the arrival of grime, conservation is something we view as very ongoing.
"I don't think (the Barnes paintings) are filthy, but I don't think they've been touched, not even by somebody with a little distilled water," said Scott.
In 1985, the foundation retained the conservator for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to prepare a detailed study that recommended that 57 paintings needed urgent care; the others were ranked in descending order of need. Those 57 were conserved, but since then, according to Rawson, paintings have further deteriorated and he has pressed to do more conservation. At the last Barnes Foundation board meeting on Sept. 9, Rawson said he was able to get a general agreement from Frick for more conservation, but was unable to establish any timetable.
Frick, in an interview last week, said, "There is no question that procedures that are developing would be carefully followed to make sure that items in the collection are stabilized and properly cared for. That is essentially internal affairs and something that has been and will be attended to. "
Rawson also has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the other Barnes trustees to petition Orphans Court for approval to change the investment policies of the foundation's endowment. Now, the endowment is invested exclusively in U.S. Treasury bonds.
"As a matter of good trust management, I think the clause restricting the endowment to government bonds is an unnecessarily restrictive investment policy. I would want to diversify, have some stocks, some bonds," said Rawson.
"What Barnes might do and which I recommended a couple of times over the years, is that they ought to go to Orphans Court and have the trust reformed. Tell the judge that what Barnes wrote in 1922 (and afterward)was under different financial conditions . . .
"Even though I recommended this to trustees as a matter of good policy, they voted me down. " Rawson said that the other trustees agreed that his proposal was a good one, but they were fearful of going to court because of their previous experience in which a succession of state attorneys general forced the foundation to hold more regular public admission hours and tried to force other changes in operation, from admitting children to publishing a catalogue and reporting finances.
Changing the Barnes indenture is unlikely to be an easy task. The foundation went through nearly 20 years of sporadic litigation, from 1952 to 1971 as a result of an initial suit brought unsucessfully by The Inquirer under then-publisher Walter Annenberg. The taxpayers' suit contended that the foundation received public support through a tax exemption, and so should be open to the public.
The suit was dismissed for lack of standing, but the state attorney general took up the case in 1958 and the foundation was forced into a consent decree establishing regular public admission hours and installing a telephone with a listed number.
At least one board member of Lincoln University, Richard L. Feigen, a Manhattan art dealer, says he would oppose trying to subvert Barnes' will or breaking up the collection, adding, "I would think the Barnes Foundation could keep its identity intact, and at the same time have (the collection) preserved, cleaned, lit, labeled. I don't see that it would bother Dr. Barnes if he were alive. "
But Rawson said: "What Lincoln is going to do is up for speculation. Lincoln's board itself is factionalized into different schools of thought, their attitude towards Barnes, how they perceive Lincoln and Barnes and what they will ultimately mean to each other. When the transition happens, will there be a unified, monolithic Lincoln University regime? No.
"It depends on who wins the political infighting at Lincoln."