Friends as foes

 Jun 18, 1991

As soon as they heard about the plan to sell some paintings, the Friends of the Barnes Foundation leapt to defend the Merion gallery from what they saw as yet another attack.

"We were very upset," said Ruth Spekter, recording secretary of the Friends, a group of more than 750 devoted former students of the foundation's art-appreciation courses. "People were calling me at 7 a.m. up until 11 p.m. We got hundreds of calls, all people asking, 'What can we do? ' "

 Fighting to preserve the eccentric vision of the Barnes Foundation is nothing new for the Friends, who banded together in 1960 to help turn back a legal assault on the gallery's obsession with privacy. They helped defeat an initial attempt to open the galleries to the public; but the state eventually persuaded the Barnes trustees to allow the public to visit on certain days.

 During those battles, the Friends of the Barnes were fighting alongside the administration of the foundation.

 Today, the Friends are still fighting to preserve the Barnes vision - this time, however, they're against the administration.

 Earlier this spring, the group took action to try to block the sale of up to 15 of the foundation's more than 800 paintings - a proposal now in Montgomery County Orphans Court, and put there by the current trustees. The group hired an attorney, Murray S. Levin, to represent it, and last month filed a petition in the court to oppose the trustees' proposed sale and attempt to impose other changes at the foundation.

 "There was no other decision to be made," said Ann Barnes, a painter and co-chairwoman of the group (no relation to Albert C. Barnes, creator of the foundation, who died in 1951). "We benefited from the education program at the Barnes Foundation and feel committed that the future generation should have this opportunity to study there. "

 New trustees contend that a sale is the only way to pay for extensive renovations, estimated as high as $18 million. But Ann Barnes and other former students say that the sale of even one of the foundation's paintings will harm the art-appreciation lectures, which are unique in that they teach from original works of art. They also fear that a proposal to expand visiting hours may threaten classes, held when the gallery is closed to the public four days a week.

 On July 11, Orphans Court Judge Louis Stefan, who is charged with overseeing private trusts, will preside over a hearing to determine whether the Friends have legal standing to enter the case and to present their own witnesses and testimony. Hearings are scheduled for Aug. 19 to determine whether the trustees may break the Barnes will and sell up to 15 paintings, as well as impose changes that the trustees say are essential for the Barnes Foundation to become a modern cultural institution.

 Richard H. Glanton, a Philadelphia lawyer elected foundation president last year, has been the architect of the controversial plans. He has little patience for the Friends and will oppose legal standing for the group. "These people have not contributed to the Barnes Foundation in any way," he said in a recent interview.

 He describes the group of former students as "people who are wealthy and have leisure time in the afternoon to take a leisure course in art appreciation to help fill out their day. "

 Glanton is one of four trustees appointed over the last three years following a provision in the Barnes will that entrusted the eventual care of the foundation to Lincoln University.

 The Friends dispute the criticism that they represent a wealthy elite. ''That's a disappointing way to view people," Ann Barnes said. "There's been a wide cross section of people in the class. "

 For instance, the group, she said, pays the $200-a-year tuition costs for about six students per year who are either disabled or financially in need.

 In recent years, the Friends' main activities have been art excursions. The Friends organize 16 field trips a year to East Coast museums and other cultural events, as well as trips to Europe.

 The group briefly disbanded after organizing a letter campaign against the successful effort by the state attorney general's office to impose visiting hours three days a week, but was revived in 1970 to oppose another attempt by the attorney general, this time unsuccessful, to increase hours to seven days a week.

 Facing these legal onslaughts throughout the years was the frail, aging figure of Violette de Mazia, doyen of the foundation, the last living protege of Albert C. Barnes, lecturer for more than 60 years, and as the last Barnes- appointed trustee, a staunch advocate for maintaining its status quo.

 In her view, the true mission of the foundation was not to showcase the incomparable art collection of impressionists and postimpressionists, but to hold the art-appreciation classes that she directed. The definition of the foundation - educational institution or museum - has been one of the long- running disputes.

 The Friends have distributed more than 2,600 copies of books written by Albert Barnes and de Mazia to university libraries. In 1973, the group republished The Barnes Foundation , Reality v. Myth, a stinging denunciation of the attorney general's campaign that forced the foundation to open to the public. Eight of the Friends have volunteered to catalogue the foundation's furniture, china and other artifacts.

 Esther van Sant, who was president of the Friends for many years, was a research assistant for that book, and a longtime confidant of de Mazia. After de Mazia's death in 1988, van Sant was hired by the foundation as director of education. To avoid a conflict of interest, she resigned from the Friends group in April, when the group decided to seek court action.

 Over the years, the Friends sponsored several social occasions and art exhibits, often held at Main Line estates and private houses, including a French afternoon and a Greek picnic. In 1973 they sponsored a "Tribute to Miss de Mazia," an evening of poetry and music held at the Academy of Music that premiered a work composed in the teacher's honor by Philadelphia composer Bonne Hoy.

 De Mazia refused to attend all such events, choosing to remain separate

 from the organization.

 "She felt this was the way it had to be for us to act in the strongest way," said Ann Barnes.

 De Mazia, however, was the link between the foundation and the Friends for almost two decades.

 Since de Mazia's death at age 89, and the election of a new board of trustees, the relationship between the Friends and the foundation has deteriorated. Other museums have been eager to cultivate such groups as patrons; at the Barnes this never happened.

 The three current officers of the Friends all attended classes in the 1960s and seminars for several years afterward. The experience, they say, changed their lives.

 "It opened my eyes to the beauty around me," said Nida Bernstein, the Friends' treasurer who began studying at the foundation to help her understand her husband's art collection. "For instance," she said, "just this morning, I looked out the window and saw the green leaves and the light coming through them, and I thought it was just like a Cezanne. "

 Unlike most art classes, which focus on art history or art techniques, foundation lectures focus on a visual analysis of painting.

 De Mazia, Ann Barnes said, "always was in fear" of the next challenge to the continuation of the courses. Now Ann Barnes has that fear.

 There may be good reason. Glanton and Lincoln have not yet announced a new education program, but have made no secret that they are considering a cooperative course of study at Lincoln that would include an endowed chair at the foundation.

 In the July hearings, the Friends will try to prove that their special interest in the foundation entitles them to join in the case.

 They are likely to invoke two precedent-setting cases by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In 1953, the court ruled against standing for The Philadelphia Inquirer (then owned by Walter Annenberg) and dismissed its taxpayers' suit that had sought to force the foundation to hold public visiting hours. The state attorney general, who represents the public interest in trust disputes, later filed suit on its own, which lead to the court order.

 The court did grant standing in 1981, however, to the Valley Forge Historical Society in its successful effort to fight eviction from the Washington Memorial Chapel. In that case, the historical society was able to ''demonstrate a special interest in the trust," which the court said could be defined as the showing of a long-term close relationship or a contribution of money by one to help the other.

 Except for modest sums for publications and scholarships, the Friends have never raised money for the foundation, although its officers say they might do so in the future. "We've never been asked to raise funds by the board," said Ann Barnes. "If we knew what was needed and could do it, we would do so tirelessly. "

 The Friends aren't offering specific suggestions about how the foundation should try to raise money through methods other than selling the paintings.

 "They would know what to do - certainly there are lots of ways to go about it," Bernstein said.

 She and the other officers are skeptical that the building - in drastic condition, according to Glanton - is in need of a thorough renovation.

 "What good is the building if it's in mint condition but the paintings are not there? " Ann Barnes asked.