Barnes Foundation says St. Joe's lease deal does not mean sales are in the works

The art still at the Barnes Foundation in Merion is not going anywhere. It’s not being sold. It’s not being given away. Nor is the Merion property itself being readied for sale in the near or distant future, according to officials.

“Selling Merion is expressly disallowed” by the foundation’s charter documents, said Barnes president and chief executive Thomas Collins.

Even though St. Joseph’s University next door is taking over much of the management and use of the 12-acre arboretum property just off City Avenue, the Barnes’ purpose is not to shed art or property, Collins said.

St. Joe’s signed a 30-year lease on the historic property in November 2017, renewable in three 20-year increments, with the express purpose of establishing a horticulture program in partnership with the Barnes. And the Barnes is seeking to enhance its own horticultural education program.

That the Barnes has just hired a collections assessment project manager — whose duties will include determining what to keep and what to sell or donate from its properties — is not a prelude to art sales, officials said.

Collins emphasized that the assessment project will largely evaluate household

items  around the Merion property and at Albert C. Barnes’ Chester County country house, Ker-Feal.

Camera icon @The Barnes Foundation
Giorgio de Chirico’s portrait of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, 1926. The painting is not part of the Barnes Foundation’s gallery ensembles.

None of the art now in storage – art that was not on the walls of the Merion gallery at the time of Barnes’ death in 1951 – will be sold. In fact, said Collins, under the Barnes Foundation’s trust indenture, the art – whether it was in the galleries in 1951 or not – cannot be sold without approval of Montgomery County Orphans’ Court.

The governing indenture stipulates that after the death of Barnes and his wife, Laura, who died in 1966, “the furniture, the rare and valuable collection of rugs, together with the Chinese vases and other objects of art, but exclusive of the paintings, that are located in the administration building, shall be sold as expeditiously as may be found necessary at public auction.”

Collins said this language means no art – paintings, prints, watercolors – may be sold without the court’s imprimatur.

There are fewer than 200 works of art that are not part of the gallery wall ensembles at the new Barnes Foundation galleries on the Parkway, he said. Probably the best-known painting is the 1926 portrait of Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico, which hung in the office at the original Barnes in Merion.

‘Something that we would never unload’

Paintings aside, Collins said the arboretum is a core mission issue for the foundation.

“It’s in the original foundation documents,” he said. “We’ve continued to maintain the arboretum and grow the arboretum and its educational program. So it’s something that we would never unload. In fact, this whole relationship with St. Joe’s is about enhancing that part of the educational mission and bringing it to a bigger audience.”

Of course, the same trust indenture that expressly forbids moving the Merion wall ensembles and the foundation’s desire to do so, announced in 2002, led to one of the epic legal battles in American art history. And the art moved, trust indenture notwithstanding.

Collins maintained that there was no plan, not even one contemplated for the far future, to sell the Merion property.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

Joseph Neubauer, chair of the Barnes board of trustees, could not be reached for comment. No other board member would comment on future plans for Merion or Ker-Feal. A Barnes spokewoman said, “The board felt they don’t have anything to add to the information we’ve already shared with you.”

St. Joseph’s will plow at least $5 million into Merion over the next decade and a half and pick up maintenance costs, removing a drain on the Barnes finances. But what about Ker-Feal? Is there a longer-range plan to sell that property, which Barnes filled with decorative art and Pennsylvania Dutch ironwork?

Whither Ker-Feal?

“What I’d like to do is get through this assessment project and figure out what we have at Ker-Feal,” said Collins. “There’s no art there. It’s very different from the program that we offer here. So the question is … what pieces of that do we want to present? How do we present them? What kind of resources are there, and what can we do with them in terms of public access?”

The lease arrangement with St. Joseph’s provides an opportunity to expand and strengthen the Barnes horticulture curriculum, which Collins said continues to grow,  while St. Joseph’s assesses how best to proceed toward its own goal of offering a horticultural curriculum.

The lease bars St. Joseph’s from constructing or demolishing any buildings. And external changes to building facades, including changes involving the stone reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz that Barnes commissioned in 1922, must be approved by the foundation.

Camera icon Barnes Foundation
This Jacques Lipchitz stone relief, “Figures with Musical Instruments,” is one of those on the facade of the Merion building.

St. Joseph’s must also seek approval for any interior changes affecting the Roy Larson frieze in the main gallery room. (Larson was a student of and then partner with Paul Cret, who designed the building.)

Barnes general counsel and secretary Sara Geelan said the foundation was committed to “maintaining the Lipchitz bas reliefs, the African art-inspired metal work and tile mosaics – as well as the frieze in the main gallery” in Merion.

The collections assessment project will examine every object still held at Merion and Ker-Feal.

“This really is about stewardship of resources, in the sense that we don’t even know the extent of what we have, what shape it’s in, what it might mean in terms of our program moving forward,” said Collins. “I think the likelihood is that we’ll keep some things that Dr. Barnes never would have expected that we would keep. The paintings, for example, that aren’t on view, we regularly lend them. That’s an important asset for us for all the obvious reasons. It’s the only thing we can lend in reciprocal lending programs.”