From crisis to dilemma the art-sale plan was doomed and dashed
July 22, 1991
Soon after the Barnes Foundation announced in late March that it intended to sell paintings from its collection, trustees began to be divided over the wisdom of the plan.
Criticism from the art and museum world was immediate and intense, reaching across the United States and even into Europe. Officials condemned the proposed sale as an affront to museum standards, tantamount to selling the family jewels. The foundation's own blue-ribbon art advisory committee publicly said it opposed the idea of breaking up even a part of the collection to pay for renovations of the neglected foundation buildings. The fact that many museums were routinely selling off some of their own treasures got lost.
At first, trustees of the foundation stonewalled critics, with president Richard H. Glanton establishing himself as a pugnacious, outspoken defender of the idea, condemning critics as "well-meaning but misguided. " Renovations were necessary, he argued, before the myth-shrouded galleries could be opened more than the current 2 1/2 days a week.
Glanton, a prominent Philadelphia attorney, a power in Republican politics and a possible mayoral candidate, seemed to care less that he was earning low marks among the museum elite. Indeed, being the bad boy of the art world was a role perfected by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, creator of the foundation, who warred with the art establishment most of his life. By all indications, Glanton seemed willing to take up the cudgels.
But by late June, the foundation's four other trustees were wavering, according to interviews with several trustees who said they would talk only anonymously. "We were concerned that we were allowing ourselves to be seen as yet another closed board of the Barnes Foundation ," said one board member.
After several prolonged, soul-searching meetings, trustees unanimously conceded that they had made a tactical error by announcing the proposal to sell paintings to raise money, without making a serious attempt to raise funds by traditional methods. In the end, Glanton agreed. Unanimously, they voted to retreat.
On June 21, the board members announced without comment that they had dropped their petition to Montgomery County Orphans Court to be allowed to break the Barnes will, which prohibited sale of any piece in the collection.
Several factors contributed to the decision, according to interviews - primarily, the absence of a single outside voice favoring the plan. The state Attorney General's Office, which represents the public in court proceedings, officially took no stand on the proposal, but appeared unlikely to support it.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, a national professional association that drafts museum ethical standards, was planning to file a brief opposing the sale. Two students groups - the Friends of the Barnes, consisting of 700 former students, and Concerned Students of the Barnes Foundation , representing current students - had filed their own petitions seeking standing in the legal wrangle to oppose the controversial sale.
"We were hearing from a number of different perspectives that what we were doing was either rash in the short run or inappropriate forever," said a trustee.
Some critics questioned whether Glanton was the wrong person to guide the destiny of the foundation, which, according to stipulations in the will left by Barnes, should be preserved as an educational institution, not just a place to look at the pictures.
"Richard Glanton's objective is pure and unadulterated lust for power - to advance him in the political arena," said Richard Feigen, a Manhattan art dealer, member of the Barnes art advisory committee, and a vociferous critic of the proposed sale. "Once he opens the door, I think he plans to decimate the collection. " Feigen's own dual role as an art dealer/adviser was viewed with suspicion by officials of the foundation and of Lincoln University, chosen by Barnes as the foundation's guardian.
A MAN WITH VISION
Some trustees, however, privately say they still support Glanton, whom they describe as a man with a vision, intent on shaking up the sleepy foundation after 40 years of neglect, and instilling institutional changes to make it more stable and more professional. The heat he has taken, said one trustee, ''doesn't bother him a bit. "
But as the outcry intensified, trustees said there was increasing worry about how the dispute would reflect on Lincoln University.
With the exception of Charles Frank 3d - a senior vice president at Mellon Bank who holds the board seat stipulated by Barnes to be filled by a trust banker - all the trustees are part of the foundation's new regime nominated in the last two years by Lincoln, the historically black college in Chester County.
Board members were particularly stung by criticism that they lacked museum or art credentials, suggesting they were ill-suited to the job. Some feared racial overtones were behind the criticism.
The other trustees are Cuyler H. Walker, assistant to U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in Washington; Shirley A. Jackson, a Bell Laboratories research physicist, and Niara Sudarkasa, an anthropologist and president of Lincoln University.
A DAUNTING TASK
Now that the fury has cooled, the Barnes still faces no less daunting a task than the transformation of the cranky, backwater gallery into a cultural institution that can survive the hard economic times that have befallen art museums everywhere. And it must do this in a climate in which even mainstream cultural institutions with practiced fund-raising machineries are finding funds scarce.
Currently the foundation lacks the kind of institutional structure most art museums have: a development office, a marketing office, even a CEO to run the place on a daily basis.
Trustees had initially hoped a sale of up to 15 paintings would raise $15 million to $18 million to renovate the main building, launch a new education program and increase the $10 million endowment.
Now that the sale is no longer an option, trustees hope they can harness some of the passion and publicity raised by the prospect of a sale and turn them into positive energy.
The foundation has yet to make an announcement, but says that after a long search, it has finally hired a new development officer and a fund-raising consulting firm to map long-term strategy.
"It's going to take some work and some serious hustling, which includes putting together a program that someone's going to want to support," said Tom L. Freudenheim, assistant secretary for museums of the Smithsonian Institution and a member of the foundation's art advisory committee.
Meanwhile, the foundation has at least temporarily shelved plans to renovate its 1926 building, which, according to architectural, security, climate control and conservation consultants, needs a massive upgrading of its internal systems.
One student group, the Friends of the Barnes, had pooh-poohed reports that the building was in decrepit shape. Now, the success of the board's fund- raising campaign will likely rest on its ability to convince potential donors of the critical nature of needed repairs.
An education program, involving Lincoln University, is also on hold because funds are lacking. Trustees had been exploring a cooperative venture that would include hiring an art scholar to draft a course of study related to the collection's massive holdings of French impressionist and post impressionist paintings.
Now that the foundation has abandoned its attempt to sell some canvases, August hearings in Orphans Court on the foundation's other requests to deviate from Barnes' will are likely to be anticlimactic.
The foundation now seeks to be released from three provisions of the will - restriction of public visiting hours to 2 1/2 days a week; a policy restricting investments by the endowment to government bonds, and a ban on social functions.
The group of current students says it still intends to fight anything that would interfere with the foundation's art appreciation classes, now held four days a week.
So far, foundation officials say, they may be willing to compromise on hours in order to work around the classes. Thomas Timoney, the Barnes attorney, said the foundation might even propose trying new hours "with some trial and error to determine what is a reasonable balance between hours of admission and educational program. "
Opposition is unlikely to the proposal to change the foundation's government-bond investment policy - a policy that, trustees estimate, has cost the foundation at least $30 million since Barnes' death in 1951.
Changing that policy, however, will produce an almost immediate cash-flow crisis.
Government bonds yielded a steady income of about $900,000 a year, but produced no growth for the endowment.
Changing to a balanced portfolio with growth stocks will potentially increase the endowment in the long run, but the stocks don't yield large annual dividends. Already, the foundation says its income is barely enough to pay for the school, gallery upkeep, arboretum and art and horticulture classes.
Violette de Mazia, longtime lecturer at the foundation and Barnes' chief disciple, left an $8.6 million estate dedicated to the foundation when she died in 1988.
This estate yields $400,000 more in annual income to the foundation budget. The trust has paid for some necessities, such as a $150,000 repair to the gallery's roof, but it is not enough for the wholesale renovations the trustees say are necessary.
Although the controversy over selling paintings is over for now, nothing prevents the trustees from going back into court again in a few years to seek a sale.
The Smithsonian's Freudenheim, a critic of the plan to sell paintings, acknowledges that a sale might still be possible in the future if other fund-raising efforts fail. "If after two years they can't raise the money, I'd feel as strongly as I did before (about a sale), but at least I'd understand it."