Barnes Wants to Move Art Collection to Phila.

Officials see more visits to Parkway site

 Sep 25, 2002

With one of the most significant art collections in the world - but without the money to support it - the embattled Barnes Foundation has decided its best hope for survival is to attract more visitors by moving from its home in Lower Merion to a new museum along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

If the ambitious move succeeds, the Barnes ' collection of 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, and other art from around the world would be within walking distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the proposed Alexander Calder Museum, and the Franklin Institute.

"This will be fabulous for the region," said Rebecca W. Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is helping to fund the Barnes ' efforts. If the move happens, Philadelphia will have a "magic museum mile," she said.

Potential locations for the new museum include the Youth Study Center near the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia School District headquarters.

The nonprofit Barnes Foundation, facing the possibility of running out of money early next year, petitioned Montgomery County Orphans' Court yesterday for permission to move its gallery and modernize its governing rules. The Orphans' Court oversees charitable trusts.

Backing the proposal is the city's largest foundation, the Pew, as well as the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations.

Those foundations together have agreed to provide $3.1 million in operating funds to the Barnes for at least the next two years. More important, they have promised to help the Barnes Foundation raise $100 million to build a museum on or near the Parkway, and to raise $50 million for an endowment.

Complicating the move, however, is a legal tangle created by the will and other documents left by the Barnes Foundation's founder, Albert C. Barnes .

 Barnes left excruciatingly detailed rules to follow after his death in 1951, and they cannot be broken easily. They include keeping his paintings "in exactly the places they are. . . . "

So before the foundation can move the art, it must convince the court that its proposal is the best way to preserve Albert Barnes ' core purposes: art education and appreciation.

State law allows charitable foundations to violate the terms of a trust when financial need or other considerations make it incredibly difficult to follow them. The Barnes has won court approval for other variations.

But yesterday's sweeping request to whisk away the paintings and rewrite the foundation's guiding documents will be "an awfully big nut" for the courts to crack, said Bruce H. Mann, a University of Pennsylvania law professor.

"They'll have to argue that Albert Barnes would have preferred this to the foundation deteriorating or collapsing, and they'll have to show that moving is the only way to prevent that from happening," Mann said.

Arlin M. Adams, a former federal judge, of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis L.L.P., is leading the foundation's legal effort.

As a dual representative of the public's interest and the donor's intentions, the state Attorney General's Office will play a major role in the legal struggles ahead. The office could opt to support the request as the best choice available, or choose to fight it, arguing that it violates Albert Barnes ' intentions too much.

"We have concerns about the breadth of this proposal," said Sean P. Connolly, a spokesman for the attorney general.

If the Barnes makes it through the legal gauntlet, though, it would find a welcome host in Philadelphia. In a statement, Mayor Street said the city would consider it "a high honor to permanently host the Barnes Foundation collection. "

The city owns land along the Parkway, and Bernard C. Watson, president of the Barnes board, said he hoped the city would give the Barnes a plot of its own. He said he had spoken with Street about the plans.

The foundation would keep its Lower Merion property, and maintain its headquarters and horticultural classes there. Only the art gallery and classrooms would move to Philadelphia.

If approved, the new Barnes gallery would be more spacious and visitor-friendly than the cramped museum and school in Merion. But Barnes leaders stress that, despite new amenities and larger rooms, the founder's painstaking arrangements of art and cultural artifacts would be preserved.

"Those are key to the foundation's mission of education, and we will not be compromising that mission with a move," Kimberly Camp, the Barnes Foundation's executive director, said.

The assurances did not placate some of the foundation's most persistent critics.

"Well, [Albert Barnes ] is already dead, but if he wasn't, he'd croak at hearing this news," said Nick Tinari, part of a foundation watchdog group that advocates strict obedience to Albert Barnes ' intentions. "He didn't write that long will and those intricate terms for nothing. "

The foundation, however, sees the move as a cure to a long list of ailments created by its location. The foundation's ambition and financial need to open its gallery to more and more visitors has led it into long-running and expensive legal battles with its neighbors and Lower Merion Township officials.

Among the restrictions the Barnes faces in Merion is a 1,200 weekly cap on visitors and a maximum $5 admission fee.

Since its founding in 1922, the foundation has been torn between its mission to "promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts" for ordinary working people and outside pressures to open its spectacular collection to a broader audience.

Now, with its very survival at stake after legal fees and other expenses exhausted its $10 million endowment in the 1990s, Barnes officials and arts leaders say a move into the city is practically the only option. Over the last few years, it has found it nearly impossible to obtain large donations or grants.

The Pew, and the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations, agree. They are offering to pay the Barnes ' legal costs, as well as help with at least two years of operating funds - but only if the foundation moves its paintings. The foundations' vow to help the Barnes raise $100 million for a museum and $50 million for a new endowment is also contingent on a move to the Parkway.

"The reason why we got involved was, first and foremost, to try to put this extraordinary world-class collection on strong footing," Rimel, the Pew's president, said. "In the short run, we have agreed to help. In the longer run, we hope the fund-raising will go very quickly. "

By taking this approach, Watson said he believed the foundation could stay independent, not sell any art, and stay true to Albert Barnes ' mission.

Without the assistance, the institution would run out of money early next year and land in bankruptcy court, which could force it to sell paintings, Watson said.

According to its nonprofit federal tax filing, the Barnes had about $6.5 million in stocks, bonds and money-market funds at the end of 2001, and $703,437 in unpaid bills.

Watson said the Barnes was running an $800,000 deficit on a $4 million budget for the second straight year. It has less than $1 million in cash reserves. Watson said the institution had to dip into its pension fund.

Besides seeking to move its gallery into Philadelphia, the Barnes wants to expand its board from five to 15 members to attract more wealthy donors. This reform, too, meets demands by the Pew and Lenfest Foundations.

Contact Patricia Horn at 215-854-2560 or