Philadelphia's filching of the Barnes will have grave consequences

Mar 07, 2010

For years, the struggle over the fate of the Barnes Foundation was primarily a local issue, although one closely followed in the art world. Gradually, with plans proceeding to move the museum from Merion to Center City, this has ceased to be the case.

Articles examining the Barnes have steadily spread in legal and philanthropic journals, and more recently in mass-circulation publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the London Independent, Commentary, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and other prominent venues.

When Colin Bailey, the director of the Frick Collection, lectured on the Barnes in New York not long ago, crowds stretched around the block. A couple of weeks ago, a special showing of The Art of the Steal, the much-heralded new documentary on the Barnes, drew a celebrity audience at New York's Museum of Modern Art, including John McEnroe and Paula Zahn. (I am a participant in the film, but I was not compensated in any way and had no role in its production or editorial content. )

With the film's commercial opening in Philadelphia and New York last weekend, and its release from Boston to Honolulu over the next two months, the Barnes controversy will be a coast-to-coast issue. However, in Philadelphia, there hasn't been enough public discussion on the necessity, desirability, or feasibility of moving the Barnes downtown.

The Art of the Steal features attractive shots of Philadelphia's skyline and major cultural institutions as well as intriguing archival footage of late 19th- and early 20th-century street life. What it has to say about the city and its elites is considerably less flattering.

The saga of the Barnes over more than 80 years is laid out as a story of initial rejection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes' peerless collection by a philistine establishment, to accumulating envy and subversion, and finally appropriation in a grand conspiracy orchestrated by civic boosters, public officials, and powerful foundations.

The move's supporters have claimed that nothing in the film is not already a matter of public record; that it is biased and distorted; and that it is replete with unsubstantiated allegations.

As to the first point, the film's power and impact - conceded even by its detractors - rests not with its discovery of new material but with its effective narration of a complex and fascinating story of powerful egos and interests at war. As to the second, the film makes clear that it repeatedly approached the move's corporate and philanthropic sponsors for interviews or comment, only to be rejected in every case. As to the last issue, move supporters have yet to specify a single factual error in the film, whose assertions are copiously documented - many of them from The Inquirer's own pages.

That Philadelphia is going to get a national black eye from The Art of the Steal - one that many will conclude it deserves - is less to the point than the still-unexamined civic question of whether the Barnes belongs in Philadelphia, and whether it can be sustained here.

I know of no independent cost-benefit analysis of a Parkway Barnes, and thus there is no responsible estimate of the number of visitors it can hope to attract. Nor has anyone indicated how the Barnes' own projected annual deficit of $4.5 million will be met. The city needs to ask itself whether it can afford another Kimmel Center fiasco before it is too late.

Whether you support or oppose the move, these are issues that need to be addressed. Philadelphians don't need another fiscal liability, with the original and authentic Barnes less than five miles away, and sustainable for a fraction of the cost of moving it.

This last point is of particular significance, since the legal basis for moving the Barnes rests entirely on its alleged financial untenability in Merion. But Montgomery County has offered a bond-leaseback arrangement that would make $50 million available to the Barnes at once, at no cost to taxpayers. Lower Merion Township has rezoned the museum so that it can admit up to 150,000 visitors a year, an action not only supported by its neighbors but lobbied for by them. The Barnes itself has salable assets, not covered by its indenture, that could regenerate its endowment. And, were local philanthropists so inclined, the Barnes could be put on easy street for far less than the $68 million raised to save The Gross Clinic, a single painting inferior to scores if not hundreds of works in the Barnes.

Any or all of these options would make the Barnes viable in Merion. But the movers prefer to spend your money instead. In a back-door deal, the Pennsylvania legislature authorized $100 million for move-related construction eight years ago - long before court permission was actually granted.

It's all in the movie. No wonder they called it The Art of the Steal. But grand larceny is more like it.

Robert Zaller is professor of history at Drexel University and a member of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation .

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