Barnes art sale should be last resort

April 14, 1991

The other shoe has finally dropped at the Barnes Foundation , and the sound is distressing.

A unique and justly celebrated collection of art, preserved for 40 years by the posthumous eccentricity of its creator, Albert C. Barnes, is being threatened by the people to whom Barnes bequeathed the responsibility for its well-being.

The foundation's trustees have asked Montgomery County Orphans Court for permission to sell 12 to 15 paintings from the collection as a way of raising $12 million to $15 million that would be used to renovate the gallery in Merion and to establish an endowment for operations.

The trustees also want the court to approve expanded visiting hours and a higher admission fee. They want permission to hold social functions at the Barnes and to invest its endowment capital in something other than government and railroad securities. In short, they want to run the foundation in a way that almost totally contravenes the founder's beliefs, practices and intentions.

Ever since trustees appointed by Lincoln University in Chester County assumed control of the Barnes in 1988, the art world has been holding its breath in anticipation of radical changes there. That there would be changes of some sort seemed inevitable, because the temptation not to leave well enough alone appeared irresistible.

 The foundation does need money. Its investment program, mandated by Barnes in the trust agreement under which the foundation has been administered since he died in 1951, is anachronistic and ridiculously restrictive. The building does need maintenance and the collection should be professionally catalogued and opened to scholars.

 And then there's the astonishing collection itself, more than 800 paintings and 200 sculptures - dozens upon dozens of Renoirs, Cezannes and Matisses, so many that a few of each (the lesser ones, of course) sold off to beef up the foundation's paltry $1 million endowment and patch the plaster would hardly be missed - or would they?

 The trustees say they haven't decided which pictures they would sell if the court granted their petition, but if they expect to sell a dozen $1 million pictures, they're thinking more of Renoir than Jean Hugo. Board president Richard H. Glanton says that in making such a decision the trustees would be guided "by qualified experts. "

 This is small consolation, considering that before deciding to cannibalize the collection, the trustees consulted with their own advisory panel, which includes some of the country's leading museum administrators. So either the experts advised the trustees to ignore sound museum practice (by selling artworks to raise operating cash) or the experts themselves were ignored.

 Only the essentials of the board's petition to the court have been reported, so we don't know what other fund-raising options it has considered and rejected, and why it feels that selling pictures is the most prudent action it can take to maintain the collection. Perhaps the board is motivated by pure expediency; if so, that may become apparent when the court hears the petition next month.

 The proposal is disturbing because for a museum, selling pictures is like burning the furniture to keep warm; one does it only as a last resort, when all other survival strategies have failed. To consider selling as a first resort suggests either that the trustees have decided to follow the path of least effort or that they aren't thinking clearly about their obligations to the collection.

 The foundation is usually described as a museum, but Barnes always insisted that it was an educational institution, and it continued to run as such until the death of his closest disciple, Violette de Mazia, in 1988.

 By the time she died, the foundation needed to be reformed, both regarding its mission and its physical well-being. It no longer counted for much as a school and, in terms of visitor edification and convenience, it was not a very efficient museum.

 Before making any major decisions about the institution's future - whether, for instance, it should continue its educational program or be run primarily as a museum - the trustees should hire an art-wise executive director to initiate and direct scholarship on the collection and an analysis of the foundation's administrative policies, from which a blueprint for the future can be drafted.

 It seems astonishing that 2 1/2 years after de Mazia died, there still isn't any such person running the Barnes full time; Glanton, a lawyer who admits to knowing next to nothing about art, has been functioning as de facto director.

 Despite talk of a "rebirth" and an "opening up" at the Barnes, it's still pretty much a closed shop. We still don't know how much study and consideration the board has invested in long-range planning, let alone its radical decision to sell. We don't know if the board has any vision at all for the Barnes and, if so, what it is.

 The Barnes collection is more than just a public attraction; it's a precious archive - a record of a special collecting achievement and an incomparable study collection for the artists such as Renoir and Cezanne that it holds in strength. Such an asset shouldn't be compromised just because doing so seems like the quickest and most lucrative way to raise money.

 The Barnes trustees should have to demonstrate to Orphans Court that the collection is in immediate and serious physical peril - and so far no evidence of such a situation has turned up - and that no other sources of revenue exist to alleviate that peril without diminishing the collection.

 Admittedly, the trustees and the court face a dilemma. They're jointly charged with preserving Albert Barnes' legacy according to his wishes, but they cannot ensure the foundation's survival as it exists without altering or setting aside some provisions of his trust agreement - in particular his restrictions on the way the endowment can be invested - that have proved inimical to that survival.

 Since it appears that the court will have to seriously consider some practical modifications of the trust, the trustees should be limited to fund- raising alternatives that are not irrevocable - unless, of course, no reasonable alternative presents itself.

 Instead of selling pieces of the collection in a depressed market, they might propose traveling exhibitions of Barnes masterpieces at one or more museums, perhaps during the summers, when the Barnes is closed. Such exhibitions would make money for everyone involved with them.

 The trustees might publish a comprehensive catalogue of the collection, or even a coffee-table book, or even a dozen postcards. They might put the touch on a few foundations or even on Walter Annenberg, who has given more than a few million dollars to his favorite museums recently.

 They can no longer comply with all of Barnes' wishes because, like most

 collectors, he wasn't very prescient or practical about the future (either that, or he was uncommonly perverse, and arranged for his collection to self- destruct). Glanton has said that he has "no fanatical commitment to following those aspects of the indenture that don't make sense. " Well, selling pictures to fix the furnace doesn't make sense either.


 As further proof that art collectors often don't know how best to deal with posterity, consider the case of John G. Johnson, who died in 1917. Johnson left his collection of nearly 1,300 paintings to the City of Philadelphia, stipulating that they be kept in his residence at 510 S. Broad St.

 In retrospect, leaving a priceless collection of old masters to a municipality that was never competent to administer it seems foolhardy in the extreme, especially when today said municipality is wallowing in debt. Also, keeping such a collection in a private home would be considered wildly irresponsible.

 Fortunately, the Orphans Court of Philadelphia County realized that strict adherence to Johnson's will did not best serve his intentions. Over the last 50 years the court has allowed the Philadelphia Museum of Art to house and care for the bequest in a specially designated suite of galleries.

 Since the Johnson collection forms a large part of the museum's display of European paintings, the museum has long wanted to integrate the Johnson pictures with its own, to offer visitors a more logical exposition of European art.

 The court has agreed to allow this, and the integration may begin within the year as part of an overall reorganization of some museum galleries, provided an estimated $8 million can be raised to pay for the project.

 Only about a third of the Johnson pictures will be involved, though, since particularly in Italian, Dutch and Netherlandish art the Johnson collection represents most of what the museum has to offer. So there will still be an identifiable Johnson collection after the reinstallation, although its full range will be less apparent.

 As a way of acknowledging the continuing importance of the Johnson gift, the museum has organized a small exhibition in honor of the collector's 150th birthday. The show, in the Johnson special exhibitions gallery, samples the collection but doesn't convey its strengths - which isn't necessary, since the rest of it is right next door.

 The show is devoted mainly to summarizing Johnson's career as a collector. He began in the early 1880s with the art of his time, but subsequently switched to old masters. The show includes an early Mary Cassatt, a Thomas Eakins watercolor that the artist gave to Johnson as payment for legal services, and a large Manet, as well as Italian and Dutch works. It will run through June 30.