Judge backs move by Barnes Gallery

Merion Loss: Way cleared to send art downtown

Dec 14, 2004

The Barnes Foundation art gallery, home to priceless works by Matisse, Renoir, and dozens of other masters, may move from suburban Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway downtown, a judge ruled yesterday, capping the latest chapter in the collection's tumultuous history.

Henri Matisse. French, 1869-1954. Red Madras Headdress (Le Madras rouge), between the end of April and mid-July 1907 Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm) The Barnes Foundation.

More than two years after the Barnes board petitioned the court for permission to move the collection, Montgomery County Orphans' Court Judge Stanley Ott agreed that the Barnes needs to relocate to a more accessible location to avoid going broke. Three Philadelphia foundations had promised to help raise $150 million for the Barnes if it would move.

Ott said the Barnes could not likely survive simply by selling some of its real estate or the art that it has in storage, as three Barnes art students who opposed the move had suggested at two court hearings. "History and the evidence presented at these hearings shows this amount would not halt the foundation's downward financial spiral," Ott wrote.

Although the move downtown is probably several years away, Mayor Street's office said yesterday that the city would choose a site for the downtown museum by the end of this week. "Frankly, this is not something I worry about," Barnes board president Bernard Watson said. "The mayor has said he would make a site available on the Parkway. "

The current Barnes property in Merion will continue to be used as an arboretum and offices after the gallery moves; the foundation also will keep its property in Chester County.

Terrance Kline, a former Barnes student who was the lawyer for the three students, said his clients were disappointed but had not determined if they would appeal - and it was unclear whether they could, because they had been granted standing only as "friends of the court. "

"The court denied our clients any right to appeal, but, over the next few days, our clients will study the court's opinion and determine any future action," Kline said.

Civic leaders were elated.

"With the addition of the Barnes to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, we will have one of the world's best ensembles of art collections within a half-mile from Logan Circle to the Philadelphia Art Museum, with the Rodin collection, the extraordinary collection at the Art Museum, and with the addition of Barnes and possibly a Calder," said Paul Levy, president of the Center City District.

The Barnes so far has considered at least two sites on the Parkway for its gallery: the Youth Study Center, a juvenile-detention facility that plans to move to West Philadelphia in 2007, and the Von Colln Memorial Field, a recreational complex containing a playground and two ballfields. Both are on the east side of the Parkway, within walking distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; neighbors, however, have vowed to fight any attempt to build on the ballfields.

Supporters of the move have portrayed a downtown Barnes museum as a way of enhancing tourism and encouraging the development of cafes, shops and walkways along the Parkway's museum row. The Barnes has estimated that its downtown gallery could draw more than 200,000 visitors a year; it attracts about 60,000 people a year to Merion, where parking and zoning restrictions limit attendance.

Some art critics, however, have scorned the Barnes proposal as a naked attempt by Philadelphia power brokers to take control of one of the world's finest private art collections. "Turning the Barnes into a tourist trap - Bilbao by the Schuylkill, a freak show for looky-loos - accurately reflects today's consumer-oriented cultural values," Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times wrote. "But it also would demolish the historical significance of the place. "

A more basic warning came yesterday from Ildiko P. DeAngelis, director of the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University. She said she was troubled that the plan to move was based on a model that will require ambitious fund-raising and attendance figures.

"Haven't we just disregarded the wishes of one donor and turned to other donors with new promises?" she asked. "One only needs to turn to the recent case of the Washington, D.C., City Museum that closed its doors to the public last month after relying on similarly ambitious attendance figures . . . "

The judge had similar concerns.

"Our conclusion that the foundation should prevail does not mean all doubts about the viability of its plans have been allayed," Ott wrote. "Of serious concern are its fund-raising goals. "

He said he would not be surprised to see the Barnes back in court in the future, seeking help once again. There is a "real possibility that the development projections will not be realized . . ., perhaps not in the first few years, but later on when the interest and excitement about the new venture have faded," he wrote.

The ruling left the door open for the Barnes to sell its campuses in Lower Merion or Chester County, or the paintings that it has in storage, said Bruce Mann, a professor of trust law at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel said the three foundations had obtained pledges for $100 million of the $150 million they promised to raise.

"The message I would want to send is, this is a great time to come together and to ensure the future of a great institution," she said. "All eyes will be on us, so this must be done well and done right. "

In 2002, when the Pew Trusts, along with the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations, offered to help bail out the struggling Barnes if it would move downtown, the dramatic offer was just the latest upheaval for an institution that had been the focus of controversy for more than a decade.

With its original $10 million endowment from founder Albert C. Barnes no longer capable of sustaining it, the foundation saved itself in the early 1990s by winning court approval for a worldwide tour of some of its most famous art that generated about $16 million.

But it was in financial trouble again by the late 1990s after fighting a string of legal battles over zoning, parking and other regulations imposed by Lower Merion Township. The Barnes , whose board was mostly nominated by historically black Lincoln University, accused its suburban neighbors of racism for forcing it to adhere to the restrictions.

Lincoln initially opposed the proposal to move downtown, which included a provision that reduced its nominating control. Gov. Rendell, however, negotiated a compromise and vowed to increase state funding for the Chester County school; Lincoln dropped its opposition.

That left only the three Barnes art students to present court arguments opposing the move. They contended in the hearings that Albert Barnes intended for the art to be used as an educational tool, in its Merion setting, in the unique ensembles he himself had arranged.

Kline, the students' attorney, said the ruling "imperils a unique cultural masterpiece and will transform the school into a museum against Dr. Barnes ' explicit wishes. More broadly, we believe the decision sets a disturbing precedent for breaking trusts. "

The Barnes was able to spend at least $1.5 million, and probably much more, on its legal case. The students and their attorneys spent about $30,000 on theirs.

At the heart of the controversy was the multibillion-dollar art collection assembled by Albert Barnes , an eccentric doctor who made a fortune selling an antiseptic compound called Argyrol.

He died in a car accident in 1951, leaving a collection that includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses and 44 Picassos, in addition to works by Van Gogh, Monet and Degas, among many others. Matisse's Joy of Life and his three-part mural, The Dance, are at the Barnes , as is one of Cezanne's The Card Players.

By Albert Barnes ' expressed instructions, visitors and students today see his collection exactly as he arranged it; changing the instructions required court action.

Contact staff writer Patricia Horn at 215-854-2560 or phorn@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Akweli Parker contributed to this article.

The Barnes Foundation Saga

1872: Albert C. Barnes is born in Kensington.

1902: Co-founds a drug-manufacturing company. Products include Argyrol, used to fight infections.

About 1905: Builds a house on North Latches Lane in Merion.

1912: Sends artists William Glackens and Alfred Henry Maurer to Paris to purchase modernist paintings.

1922: Charters Barnes Foundation to promote "appreciation of the fine arts. " Purchases Matisse’s Joy of Life.

1931: Commissions Matisse to paint The Dance for the main gallery.

1951: Dies in a car accident. Foundation closed to the public.

1961: Foundation reopens to the public.

1993-95: World tour of foundation paintings raises $16.2 million.

1996: Foundation sues neighbors and Lower Merion, alleging racial discrimination, over township restrictions. An expensive battle ensues.

2002: Saying bankruptcy is imminent, the Barnes petitions the court to allow it to move its gallery to a more-accessible Center City location.

2003: The first court hearing is held.

January 2004: The judge says he needs more information before ruling on the request to move the gallery.

September-October 2004: A second hearing takes place.

Dec. 13. 2004: Judge Stanley Ott rules that the Barnes may move its art collection to Center City.