Enrolling in the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, he paid his tuition with fees earned by boxing and playing baseball. After taking his MD in 1892 at the age of 20, he studied chemistry and pharmacology in Germany. On a second trip there, in the employ of an American company, he recruited a talented German chemist named Hermann Hille, and the two, after settling back in the States, developed a silver-based antiseptic that was an improvement over previous silver-based eye drops used to treat inflammation in the eyes of newborn infants, in those days largely caused by gonorrhea. This medication was Argyrol, and, according to a fascinating article by Lindsay Edouard, a doctor specializing in reproductive health, in the African Journal of Reproductive Health for September 2011, when Barnes & Hille presented their results at a scientific meeting in May 1902, they intentionally misled their audience about their techniques so that nobody could copy them.
Then they quit their jobs & set up a company of their own, the Barnes and Hille Company, to produce and market Argyrol, with Hille primarily responsible for production & Barnes for marketing. Typical of Barnes’s unorthodox promotional methods was the fact that he trademarked the name of Argyrol but didn’t patent the product itself, a ploy that enabled him to sue counterfeiters of the product but excused him from describing its chemical composition publicly and also from facing the 20-year restriction of exclusive rights that still forces pharmaceuticals manufacturers to open up production of their wonder drugs to generic manufacturers after 20 years.
Another technique employed by Barnes, both at home and abroad, was to market Argyrol to physicians rather than pharmacists, and especially to specialists, whose endorsements would also encourage general practitioners to use it. This practice is, of course, universal today, but was novel at the time, and so successful that sales of Argyrol skyrocketed.
Barnes was evidently already something of a hothead. As Edouard says, “personality problems led to numerous disputes,” and, after taking the case to the courts, Barnes bought out Hille in 1908 to start the A. C. Barnes Company---which became operational only after Hille had taught Barnes how to manufacture Argyrol, as stipulated in the court decree. Argyrol—though usually referred to condescendingly nowadays as only a “patent medicine”--- was popular among doctors as well as the general public throughout the first half of the 20th century, being also used for infections of other parts of the body, including the nose, throat, rectum, genitourinary tract & skin. In fact, it was only after World War II, when antibiotics became widely available, that use of it dropped off.
Unlike antibiotics, Argyrol (and silver nitrate solutions in general) are not effective against Chlamydia, which is increasingly more important than gonorrhea as a cause of inflammation in the eyes of newborns (also, in the opinion of modern medicine, there are problems regarding the safety of silver nitrate). Even in 2012, though, there’s still an Argyrol website, and at least one chiropractor in Utah who says (again, at his website) that he uses it to treat sinusitis.
All of which is somewhat beside the point, as the hero of our story, Dr. Barnes, had – in July 1929, when the stock market was at a record high – sold his company to the Zonite Products Corporation. When the market crashed, three months later, he was left with a tidy nest egg, most of it in cash or its equivalent, not stocks – plus the nucleus of what would become a truly fabulous art collection.
THE BEGINNING OF A COLLECTION
Already a millionaire at the age of 35, Barnes by 1910 had built a second home with his wife Laura in Merion, an affluent Main Line suburb of Philadelphia, and taken up hunting as a hobby, but – according to Bennard B. Perlman, in Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight (1979; 1988), he had also wanted to paint himself, and begun collecting. Initially, he seems to have acquired conservative, often academic 19th century paintings to be had from New York and Philadelphia dealers, by artists like the sentimental Millet, late fuzzy Corot, the deservedly forgotten Diaz and so forth.
However, Barnes also had a high school friend and sometime baseball teammate who had become a very good painter, and with whom he seems to have renewed his acquaintanceship around 1911 or 1912. This was William Glackens (nicknamed “Butts”), who had exhibited his luscious late impressionist scenes of café life with the seven other artists who formed “The Eight,” a group which startled New York with their show in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery.
This exhibition is often considered the opening gun of the modern movement in American 20th century art (though the work was still somewhat conservative by comparison with the contemporary European avant-garde). In any event, Glackens teased Barnes about the kind of work he was probably acquiring at that point. In response, Barnes sent him to Paris in early 1912 with $20,000 and instructions to acquire truly “modern” paintings for Barnes.
Glackens, who then visited Leo Stein in Paris, saw his collection, and also had the help of fellow American avant-garde painter Alfred Maurer in canvassing the Paris galleries, returned with between 20 and 30 canvases, including several by Renoir, and at least one apiece by Cézanne, Degas and Manet, as well as "The Postman," by Van Gogh. These may sound like tame selections to people who know only the cutting edge of modernism (by 1912, Picasso and Braque had already moved on from high Analytic Cubism to collage). However, to the public as a whole, and particularly in America, even Manet was still somewhat novel.
To Barnes, the paintings Glackens had brought him were so inspiring that he himself headed off to Paris in June and December of that same year. He was to revisit Europe many times, but those first visits marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Stein, and his own purchase of his first two paintings by Matisse.
Here was the real beginning of a collection that was to grow and grow over the years. It was centered around Barnes’s three great loves, to a total hung today in the new Barnes Foundation of 181 works by Renoir (the largest single group of that artist’s paintings), 69 works by Cézanne (including “The Card Players” and “The Large Bathers”) and 59 works by Matisse (including the mural of “The Dance,” commissioned by Barnes himself, and “The Joy of Life”).
Then the collection radiates outward, upwards, downwards & sidewise to include a) further works from the School of Paris, including 7 paintings by Van Gogh, 6 by Seurat (including “The Models”), 46 works by Picasso (about half works on paper, the other half primarily paintings from the Blue & Rose Periods), 18 paintings by Henri Rousseau, 21 paintings by Soutine, and 16 works by Modigliani; b) early 20th century American paintings, including 70 works by Glackens, 44 by Charles Demuth, 21 by Maurice Prendergast, and 4 by Horace Pippin; c) dozens of Old Master paintings, including important works by El Greco, Veronese, Frans Hals and Jan Van Goyen (but also many paintings, mostly small but generally accepted as being by major masters in the early years of the 20th century, and since re-attributed by more persnickety 21st century scholars to “School of,” “Follower of,” & the like); d) 125 African sculptures, masks and tools (often acquired long before African art became popular, and bearing testimony to Barnes’s continuing interest in African Americans and their heritage); e) more than 200 objects of Native American jewelry, textiles & ceramics; f) 34 devotional sculptures, or Santos, from New Mexico; g) a “major holding” of Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. German & Swiss) furniture, decorative arts, pottery & fraktur; and h) a huge collection of wrought-iron objects from the United States (hasps, bolts, hinges & locks), the majority of which are displayed in the wall ensembles, interspersed with the paintings. And so on, including work by Courbet, ancient & medieval art, etc, etc. The list could be extended almost indefinitely, and, while nobody seems to want to estimate the total number of works on view, they clearly number in the thousands, and the guesstimates are that the collection as a whole is worth some $25 billion.
SCHOOL OR GALLERY?
What in the world did Barnes want with all this splendor? Well, here is where the melodrama & the contentiousness begin. Barnes established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 with what’s known as an “indenture of trust,” transferred his collection (and an endowment to support it) to the foundation, and, next to his own home in Merion, built a large neo-French Renaissance building to house it all, complete with cubist reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz and tile work with African designs on the exterior.
The building was dedicated in 1925, with speeches by Leopold Stokowski, the well-known conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and John Dewey, the famous pragmatist philosopher and father of progressive education. Barnes had taken a course at Columbia University with Dewey, as a result of which the two men had become good friends.
According to the foundation’s charter from the State of Pennsylvania, and/or the indenture of trust, the foundation became a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation “to promote the advancement of education and appreciation of the fine arts, and for this purpose to erect, found and maintain…an art gallery and other necessary buildings for the exhibition of works of ancient and modern art….” But did this mean Barnes was starting a school or an art gallery?
Certainly, there was a school established. Dewey became its first (honorary) director, and students were taught to appreciate art according to a combination of Dewey’s ideas and those of Barnes, the latter spelling out his ideas in The Art of Painting (1925), and being what might best be called a formalist. Though he anticipated Clement Greenberg by decades, and doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in Roger Fry, either, he was a formalist like them in the sense that he was exclusively concerned with the formal values, otherwise known as pictorial qualities, of art, and not at all interested in its historical or iconographic significance. Light, line, color and space were what he wanted his students to learn to appreciate, as well as how these qualities manifested themselves in the fine & applied arts, painting & sculpture, historical & modern art, and how these same qualities tied all this art together.
He didn’t care what historical period a work of art came from, or its ideological significance: he wanted his students to learn to appreciate its command of visual qualities. And, to teach this, he hung his collection with all different kinds of art juxtaposed, art from different artists & different periods & different media all combined on each and every wall.
As far as every other kind of art interpretation was concerned, he was against it, and, both in his admirations & his antagonisms, he seems to have been so passionate, so zealous that his teachers – and his students – became passionate & at least a bit like zealots, too. Even after they graduated, and presumably moved on to other things, they continued to revere Barnes, his teachings and his collection, and to consider all of them sacrosanct – for decades after he had died in a car crash at the age of 79, in 1951, and in fact, right on up until 2012.
WHO SHALL ENTER?
Who were these students, and what became of them? In the literature provided by the Barnes Foundation upon the occasion of its relocation in center city, I find no statistics on how many of them there were (although an article by Carol Vogel in the NY Times in 1991 suggested that there could be as many as 100 at that time, enrolled in a part-time, unaccredited three–year course).
The course led to a certificate in art appreciation, which is not much good as preparation for a career as an art historian or curator, let alone as a practicing artist and/or studio teacher. It might be good for a career as a formalist art critic, but that’s not exactly a growth industry these days. And of course, it’s good preparation for a prospective collector and/or somebody who just enjoys looking at art as a hobby. But how many of these students were in a position to become collectors, for example, or had the leisure to pursue such a hobby at any length?
Barnes seems to have preferred to take on students with little or preferably no prior experience or education in art, and often if not always, persons with limited financial means. Many were employees of his, initially from his pharmaceuticals company but later on (after the company was sold) handymen and other employees on his estates (which included not only the foundation’s building in Merion but also his home, assorted outbuildings there & a huge country hideaway, Ker-Feal, in Chester County, surrounded by 237 acres). The art students studied esthetics as well as the art itself, writings by the philosopher George Santayana among others, and Barnes played them music that appeared appropriate on a phonograph. There was also a second school, of horticulture, headed up by Mrs. Laura Barnes & making full use of the extensive gardens surrounding the Merion foundation.
From time to time, other visitors were also allowed to visit the foundation and admire its wealth of beauty, provided they had sought and received Barnes’s permission to enter. But he was very particular about who received these permissions. The kind of visitors he favored, according to the indenture of trust, were “the plain people, that is men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places.” This did NOT include art critics, curators, collectors, art historians, dealers, students from other schools and anybody else who might have learned alternative ways of appreciating art. Such applicants were refused admittance, often very rudely, sometimes with letters containing only an obscenity, or signed by Barnes’s dog (with a paw print).
This or some equally ignominious treatment was handed out even to titans of the Manhattan art scene, including Columbia’s Meyer Schapiro and Lizzie Bliss of MoMA (though Erwin Panofsky, of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, so the story goes, managed to get in by disguising himself as a liveried chauffeur). How much of this wholesale rejection was due to bitterness & disappointment with the Philadelphia art establishment, I can’t say, but it is a fact that in 1923, Barnes had proudly displayed some of his Parisian moderns at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, only to have to have psychologists call the art diseased, and critics jeer at it. Even in 1923, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Matisse were still controversial, and not only in Philadelphia, either—also at Harvard & with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
AFFINITY WITH AFRICAN AMERICANS
Nor did Barnes’s treatment of the philosopher Bertrand Russell alleviate his reputation as “the terrible-tempered Dr. Barnes.” In 1940 Russell was appointed an instructor at Barnes’s school, with a five-year contract at a salary of $8,000 a year (not bad in an era when coffee & the New York subways still cost only a nickel apiece). In 1943, Barnes fired Russell, who sued for $24,000 in unpaid salary – and was awarded $20,000 by the courts.
Yet, again according to documents in the Barnes archives, in areas other than art Barnes was kind & generous, contributing to many worthy causes, especially those relating to African Americans, among them the NAACP and the Urban League. He became friendly with leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, and helped Paul Robeson, the great African American singer and actor whose far-left politics & political activism got him blacklisted in the McCarthy era.
In 1950, the year before Barnes’s death, the Barnes Foundation’s bylaws were amended to enable the board of trustees of Lincoln University near Oxford PA to nominate four of the five trustees of the foundation upon the demise of all original trustees (the fifth seat on the board being reserved for a bank representative).
Lincoln is a historically African American liberal arts college with an excellent all-around reputation and many eminent graduates, including Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, and the first presidents of the independent countries of Nigeria and Ghana. It has never, as far as I know, been known for its art department, but this would probably have been a plus rather than a minus for Barnes.
START OF AN ODYSSEY
In 1951, right after Barnes’s death, a story in the NY Times said that the deed of trust under which the foundation had been created provided that the museum should be opened eventually to the public “at stated intervals to be fixed by the trustees.” That didn’t happen, and so the foundation began what was to become a 61-year odyssey through the courts of Montgomery County, which is where Merion is located (most if not all of many petitions & counter-petitions would be filed in the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court, which, besides overseeing wills, estates and other matters pertaining to the children of deceased parents, also oversees the nonprofit organizations in its jurisdiction) .
In 1952, the Philadelphia Inquirer brought suit against the foundation in the name of Harold J. Weigand, one of its writers who lived in Montgomery County. The suit asked the foundation be required to adopt “reasonable rules and regulations” for admitting art students and the general public to the museum. After all, as a nonprofit organization, it received tax exemptions from the government, but it wasn’t conducing to “appreciation of the fine arts” if it didn’t let the public in to look at the art, and it wasn’t even a real educational institution, since the courses it offered were not accepted for credit by other institutions to which its graduates applied.
Aline B. Louchheim (later Saarinen), an art correspondent for the New York Times, went down to Merion to investigate. In the story that resulted, she told how the front gate to the foundation was locked, and its phones were all unlisted, how the secretary-treasurer of the board, whom she reached at her home, protested that “I can’t tell you anything about that,” and how the lawyer who had represented the estate when Barnes had died was similarly evasive.
A card handed out to persons who tried to enter at the side door stated that the foundation was not a public gallery but an educational institution, and, though Louchheim was told by “a reliable informant” that no students had been seen entering or leaving the foundation within the past two months, the court nonetheless accepted its claims, and denied the suit.
Nine years later, the situation was reversed, thanks to Anne X. Alpern, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, who had filed a petition to make the gallery in effect into a public museum, on grounds that it was tax exempt. Before the scheduled hearing, an agreement was worked out between the state Justice Department and lawyers for the foundation, agreeing that 400 persons would be allowed to visit the gallery each week, a limitation agreed upon because of the size of the gallery.
The agreement was announced in December 1960, and the first opening day took place in March 1961. The foundation was to be open two days a week, with 200 visitors on Fridays & 200 on Saturdays, except on legal holidays and July and August, when the galleries would be closed.
Two days a week wouldn’t seem like too much of an intrusion, but nevertheless, the opening was picketed by four members of an organization calling itself the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, all regular students at the foundation. They carried signs saying, “We stand for education,” and handed out printed statements protesting that the admission of the public would interfere with their studies.
On the second day that the gallery was open to the public, John Canaday, senior critic of the New York Times, visited and raved at length about the magnificence of the collection. He also noted that Mrs. Barnes, the founder’s widow, had been on hand, reportedly remarking that it was “annoying to have so many people in the galleries at one time.” At the time, the foundation allowed 100 persons per day to make reservations in advance, and admitted another 100 each day on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Later that year, the foundation petitioned the court to allow it to charge an admissions fee of $2; the court would only allow $1. When William Robbins, another Times correspondent, visited the Barnes in June 1984, the entrance fee was still $1, though the galleries were now open an additional half-day on Sunday, with 100 more visitors admitted, to a total of 500 per week.
Robbins remarked on the absence of catalogues, reproductions, and wall labels (though the paintings mostly had brass plates with the name of the artist on the bottom of the frame). One-half of the collection was open 9:30 am to 11:15, then roped off and the other half opened and closed for the same length of time, the two halves alternating in this manner until closing time at 4:30 pm.
Robbins observed that “limited demand has made access fairly easy.” This was to become a familiar refrain among Times correspondents visiting the foundation, and was evidently intended to lure in more visitors by assuaging fears about the place being so exclusive that nobody could get in.
Later on in the 80s, the Times reported on how trustees appointed by Lincoln University were beginning to replace Barnes’s original trustees, as they, one by one, died off. In October 1989, with the appointment of the third & fourth Lincoln trustees, the university gained control of the board, and Franklin H. Williams, a Lincoln nominee, became president.
After he died in 1990, Richard H. Glanton was elected to succeed him. Like Williams, Glanton wasn’t an art expert. Although he had had one course in art appreciation in college, he had then gone on to law school and become a corporate lawyer.
SIGNS OF STRESS
Within a year, the first signs of financial difficulties at the Barnes began to surface. To this day, there is controversy about how serious these difficulties were, and who was ultimately responsible. One book, published in 2003, would primarily blame Glanton’s mismanagement for them, but, as the courts would eventually decide, the essential problem was more longstanding and deep-seated.
The endowment left by Barnes at his death, and used to operate the museum as well as handle its renovation and the conservation of its art works, was becoming increasingly inadequate. Over the years, the NY Times had variously reported this endowment’s worth at anything from $6 million to $16 million, but however much it may have been, by the ‘90s it just wasn’t enough.
Part of the problem seems to have been that the indenture of trust specified that this endowment be invested only in government securities (and, according to some sources, also railroad stocks). Evidently Barnes remembered the Great Crash of 1929, and government securities (bonds and T-bills) are (or were) crash-proof. Unfortunately, they offer no hedge against inflation, the way stocks in (carefully chosen) private companies can. As for railroad stocks, they had been declining in value ever since the 50s, with the construction of a national highway system & the advent of widespread air travel.
On top of this (though never discussed by the Times, or publicly by the foundation) was the fact that the income from admissions must have been minimal—not only because individual tickets were so cheap, but also because, located in a Philadelphia suburb, the Barnes pretty much required an all-day visit even from Philadelphians, and as a result, didn’t attract that many visitors.
Those who came (& who seem to have been the creme de la creme, often coming from very far away) mostly adored the whole experience. They loved the small galleries, & the idiosyncratic but provocative hanging (exactly as Barnes had left it--he had stipulated that nothing could ever be moved). Also appealing was the fact that this was an intimate, unique way to enjoy so many marvelous works of art, far off the beaten path and quite unlike any of the big-city museums.
Story after story in the New York Times would reflect this enthusiasm and encourage visitors to come, but also continue to report that it was easy to gain admittance. This indicates to me that the foundation must have been operating at far below capacity – and on top of that, for only for three days out of seven—though its physical plant still had to be maintained as though it were attracting capacity crowds six days a week.
Nor was there any gift shop that sold full-color catalogues, color reproductions, color postcards and all the other items that provide additional income for most museums (Barnes had specifically forbidden any color reproductions of work in the museum, though a few black-and-white leaflets, with a partial list of works, had been available as early as 1984). There was no cafe or restaurant on the premises to provide another source of income. (Since there were also no other places in eat near the foundation in what was really a residential suburb, visitors who had only been able to get reservations for midday had to bring along their own sandwiches & eat in their parked cars.)
SALES THE SOLUTION?
In March 1991, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported (and the Times reported in its turn), the trustees, led by Glanton, petitioned the Montgomery County Orphans Court for permission to let it sell up to 15 paintings from the collection. This permission was necessary because Barnes, in his original indenture of trust, had also forbidden the foundation to sell any picture in its collection, “except that if any picture passes into a state of actual decay so that it no longer is of any value it may be removed for that reason only from the collection.”
Glanton told the Inquirer that $12 to $15 million was urgently needed to restore the 1926 building and increase the $10 million endowment, but museums are only supposed to de-accession art in order to buy other art, not for capital improvements. The outcry was such that only four months later, in July 1991, Grace Glueck reported in the Times that the foundation had backed down on its plan to sell any paintings, and was investigating other ways to raise funds, like allowing books to be published about it, raising the price of admission, and modernizing its investment procedures.
Evidently, none of these other means raised enough money, so in the spring of 1992, the trustees again petitioned the court to break the foundation’s charter, this time to allow 80 to 90 paintings from the collection to go on a tour of other museums, in order to raise $7 million to modernize its building. Barnes had also forbidden any picture in the collection even to leave the building temporarily, and his loyal admirers sought to keep this prohibition in place, among them the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, which now included not only its students, but also former students, employees and other local residents, and the De Mazia Trust, which had been created by Violette De Mazia, a longtime associate of Barnes’s and a trustee of the foundation until her death in 1988. Among the arguments advanced by the lawyers for these parties was that some paintings were too fragile to travel, but the judge, reasoning that paintings too fragile to travel wouldn’t be included, allowed the tour to take place, “just this once.”
Unfazed, the Friends carried on their campaign. When Carol Vogel visited the foundation in April 1993, only a month before the tour began, she found Barnes students distributing pamphlets outside the building, entitled “Grand Scam. How the Trustees Faked It: Renovation Budgets and Other Hoaxes.” A billboard nearby also accused the foundation of violating a public trust; it had been paid for by a retired college professor who saw himself as educating the public.
Vogel was also shown and/or told about the sad state of the building. “A steam explosion in 1985 caused water damage to the burlap-covered walls, nearly destroying nine paintings, which have since been restored,” she reported. “The building’s electrical system dates from the 1920’s. Temperatures in the galleries are not monitored. Floors are rotting in the basement, and the security system is antiquated.” Glanton also told her that the building was totally out of compliance with the local codes.
“Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation” traveled, between May 1993 and October 1995, to the National Gallery in Washington, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (where I saw it --- terrific show), the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and not least, the Philadelphia Art Museum (where it broke all attendance records, suggesting that there were a lot of people in Philadelphia who wanted to see the collection but wouldn’t -- or couldn’t -- trek all the way out to Merion).
The tour brought in a grand total of $17 million, not only from rental fees but all the accompanying bells & whistles, including sales of color posters, color postcards, color catalogues, tote bags, scarves, CD-ROMs and key chains. All this paid for renovating the building while the tour was going on, & turned out to cost $12 million, yet still leave money for the endowment.
When Michael Kimmelman of the NY Times visited the Barnes in November 1995, shortly after it had reopened, he found it just as uncrowded as it had ever been. Although new lighting, mechanical and electrical systems had been installed, otherwise the museum was exactly the same, all the hanging just as Barnes had directed before he died, the burlap on the walls purchased from the same Burmese mill from which Barnes had purchased the original burlap, and the stones composing the front steps from the same French quarry that Barnes had ordered the original steps from.
True, admission was now $5, and the collection was open three-and-a-half days a week instead of two-and-a-half (half-days on Thursdays, whole days on Friday through Sunday); a gift shop had been added, and there were new descriptive materials in the galleries, along with Acoustiguides, which dispensed bits of Barnes’s advice on how to appreciate the work on view, combined with more conventional museological wisdom. Glanton estimated that fighting the loyalists in court had already cost the foundation $1 million out of its $17 million, and more litigation was underway.
The foundation had petitioned the court to allow it to stay open 6 days a week, but its neighbors in Merion were fighting this, envisioning fleets of busses and cars choking the streets in front of their million-dollar homes, and using their pristine driveways to turn around. “Had Dr. Barnes insured the financial stability of his foundation in the first place,” Kimmelman wrote, “no one would even have had to consider breaching his will, but he didn’t.” In December, the township officials issued a “cease and desist order,” demanding that the foundation return to its original educational purpose.
In response, the foundation’s trustees, led by Glanton, filed a civil rights complaint, arguing that it hadn’t been subjected to any such restrictions prior to 1990, before control of the board passed to the African Americans from Lincoln University. The town commissioner then filed a defamation suit against Barnes, and the civil rights complaint was dismissed by a federal judge.
In December 1996, the Times reported that the township zoning board had ruled that Barnes was operating illegally as a museum in a residential area, and the township’s governing commission was entitled to levy fines of $500 a day unless the number of visitors was sharply reduced and the days of operation were cut back from three-and-a-half per week to two-and-a-half again. Mention was made again of “noisy, smelly busses” and “countless cars.”
Gamely, the foundation said that it would appeal this decision, but its financial situation seems to have been going from bad to worse, so it also began to cast around for other options. In March 2001, Doreen Carvajal reported in the New York Times that the Barnes was considering a truly radical step: it was holding private discussions about moving to center city Philadelphia, but the situation was obviously still very fluid and various alternative plans were being discussed, none of which the Barnes itself wanted to discuss.
Kimberly Camp had become executive director since Glanton was forced out in 1998 (an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to oust him had been made in 1993, presumably because he had managed to get himself embroiled in a sexual harassment suit brought by a woman at his law firm, and ordered to pay her $125,000). Camp was evasive about the move to center city when Carvajal interviewed her, and would deny that any move was in the works in a subsequent letter to the editor, but by talking to other interested parties, Carvajal was able to establish that expenses of the foundation were running at $3 million a year, and that a fund drive in the previous summer for $15 million had raised only $1.5 million—chickenfeed, in other words.
The Times story suggested that major charitable foundations were unwilling to sink large amounts of money in the Barnes as long as it was forced to operate in a fundamentally uneconomic manner, with local authorities capping attendance at only 1200 visitors per month, and only 85 percent of even that modest total being reached because of the foundation’s location and cumbersome advance reservation requirements. Carvajal suggested that if the Barnes could move to center city, big foundations would be willing to donate enough money to put it on a permanently sound financial basis. She wrote that there was talk of expanding the number of trustees on the board “to give a stronger voice to donors.”
FINALLY, THE BIG STEP
In a story in the NY Times in September 2002, Ralph Blumenthal reported that the Barnes had filed papers with the Montgomery County Orphans Court, asking for permission to move permanently to a new downtown building that would be constructed with the aid of $150 million to be provided the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest Foundation (later on, the Annenberg Foundation would join the other two).
The petition asked permission to expand the board from five to fifteen members, in order to afford donor representation, but it also promised that the collection itself would be displayed exactly as it was in Merion. Bernard C. Watson, the foundation president, was quoted saying that the alternative was bankruptcy, but also quoted was Nick Tinari, an alumnus of the school active in a “monitoring group called Barnes Watch,” who was resisting the move because it was “completely against everything Barnes wanted.” Tinari blamed the management of the Barnes for its “financial ruin.”
For the next two years, the battle raged between the Barnes Foundation’s management and its loyalist antagonists who loved the place as it was, didn’t believe what they were told about its financial situation, and couldn’t see the need for a move. In court, throughout the prolonged hearings, this loyalist position was most often expressed by lawyers representing three Barnes students, but in the Manhattan art world, many artists, critics, dealers, curators and so forth also seem to have agreed that the move wasn’t needed, violated the founder’s wishes, and would turn the collection from a delightfully intimate, personal experience into just one more big-city “tourist trap.”
About all the Barnes management could say in response was that without the move, the collection faced bankruptcy, and that the move was only proposed because it was the best, indeed the only feasible way to preserve it. Newspapers are supposed to be impartial, but from how the Times covered the controversy, with every attempt made to present the beauty of the status quo, I’d suspect that its staffers mostly sympathized with the loyalists (who may well have been more numerous among its readers—newspapers tend to follow the leadership of their readers, more often than not).
Two exceptions were Kimmelman and Roberta Smith. Both were apparently more realistic about the problems in Merion -- but only very rarely did they suggest in print that there were valid reasons for the move.
The presiding judge, Stanley R. Ott, worked long and hard at ensuring that both sides of the issue were given every chance to present their cases. Within two weeks after the original petition, Lincoln University sued to prevent the expansion of the board, one Lincoln vice president likening the proposed change to Reconstruction schemes to disenfranchise newly freed slaves. Apparently in response, Ott, in April 2003, ordered the board to render up an audit that it had hoped to keep private. It covered the period between 1992 and 1997, when Glanton had been in charge, the lucrative international traveling show had taken place – and the foundation had begun running a deficit.
On the same day in May when the audit was turned over to Ott, Art Held Hostage was published. This book, by John Anderson, added fuel to the fire, as it detailed some of the ways in which Glanton had mismanaged the foundation, among them running up $2 million in legal fees. When the audit was made public that July, Blumenthal reported how it further criticized Glanton for conflicts of interest, running up $225,000 in travel and entertainment charges, and letting “two women live in Barnes properties under unusual circumstances.”
All of this dirty laundry played into the loyalists’ hand, as it implied that there was really nothing wrong with the fact that the Barnes was in Merion, and that any financial problems it might have had were merely due to mismanagement, most of it by one individual.
THE BARNES AS RELIGION
That December, Judge Ott began a weeklong series of hearings. Dr. Watson once again explained that if the Barnes stayed where it was, it would go bankrupt. The lawyer for the students countered that it had always been intended for an educational institution, not a museum, and “was never meant to be seen by the masses.” Another lawyer asked why the Barnes couldn’t just sell a couple of its Van Goghs. Watson explained that selling one or two paintings wouldn’t solve the museum’s long term problems.
In January 2004, the judge postponed further hearings until he had received feasibility studies from both sides, with estimates of how much money could be raised by alternate plans --- though he also gave the Barnes permission to expand its board to fifteen trustees. That same month, the Times gave the loyalists a chance to argue their position, in the form of an article by Lee Rosenbaum, a contributing editor at Art in America.
Rosenbaum did admit that the Barnes at that point was only in business thanks to $3 million in “bridge funding” by the three big charities who wanted it to move to center city. But he thought enough money to keep it in Merion could be raised by selling off Ker-Feal and its surrounding 237 acres in Chester County, together with auctioning off “ancillary collections” (which he estimated totaled another 5200 objects and documents, besides what was hanging in the main building).
Rosenbaum agreed that it was okay to expand the board, but thought admission charges could be doubled and the number of visitors increased by staying open more days. He also thought that the big foundations who were willing to finance the move to Philadelphia could be persuaded to contribute the much smaller sums that would be necessary to allow the Barnes to stay in Merion.
In September 2004, the hearings began again. At issue, according to Julia M. Klein in the Times, was whether moving would constitute “the least drastic deviation” Albert Barnes’s 1922 trust of indenture. At this point, the foundation was running a deficit of $1 million a year, but once more, the court heard arguments from the lawyer representing the three students. They were still asking to keep the collection in Merion, even if it meant selling off thousands of art works in storage and also Ker-Feal, with its 237-acre property in Chester County.
The lawyer for the foundation said those sales wouldn’t earn $50 million; the students thought it would. “But even if you could,” the foundation lawyer added, “this is the wrong thing to do.” A further story by Klein, two days later, added that a CPA firm had done a feasibility study for the proposed move, and thought that in Philadelphia, the foundation should be able to quadruple the number of visitors who could be accommodated, from 57,000 a year to 237,000 (or from 1,200 to roughly 4,800 a week – not counting school groups).
A long article by Klein and Vogel, two days later, was aptly headlined, “The Barnes as Religion; Rivals in Court Preach Different Ways to Its Salvation.” Again, the arguments for both sides were rehashed, with descriptions of parades of witnesses for both sides, and additional statistics and details (though the story also conceded that “ironclad facts were hard to come by in four days of hearings”).
There was further debate about the ethics of selling off any of the foundation’s collection in order to pay ongoing expenses, and further estimates of how much the proposed sales of work & real estate would raise (the students’ lawyer said $42.8 million; the Barnes Foundation said the total would be much lower, about $24.7 million). The foundation had proposed a three-campus model, with the present collection (and its library) in Philadelphia, archives and the horticulture school in Merion, and Ker-Feal kept to house decorative arts, but not open to the public.
A representative for the accounting firm that had prepared the feasibility study for the foundation testified that its three-campus model would need revenues of $11.3 million a year, of which $4.25 million would have to come from donations, $2.5 million from an endowment, and the rest from admissions and other sources.
The story also noted that the foundation’s neighbors in Merion, having complained about smelly busses & traffic jams for years, were belatedly discovering they might be losing out on something good. The township commissioners had recently passed a resolution opposing the move, and signs were sprouting on neighborhood lawns saying “the Barnes belongs in Merion.”
Evidently, however, the foundation presented a more convincing case than the students (or the neighbors), because Carol Vogel, three months later, in mid-December 2004, reported that Judge Ott had granted the foundation’s petition to move, saying that it was the “only realistic way to save the Barnes from bankruptcy” and that there was “no viable alternative.”
Richard L. Feigen, the Manhattan dealer who had once served on an advisory council to the foundation, and since become one of its most vocal critics, was quoted in the Times calling this “a terrible mistake,” but a Times editorial endorsed the decision as “an act of judicial common sense.”
Roberta Smith noted “the usual wringing of art-world hands,” because the “magical” house would be lost, the breaking of the charter might discourage donors, and the new setting might be “just another tourist trap.” Still, as far as she was concerned, the decision marked “a triumph of accessibility over isolation, of art over the egos of collectors, and, frankly, of the urban over the suburban….In other words, gains may ultimately outweigh the losses.”
TALK ABOUT SORE LOSERS
You might think that this decision would have convinced the Barnes’ students that the fight which they had been carrying on for at least two years (or forty, depending on how you count) was over. You might also think that, as far as the Times was concerned, this was now old news. But no! In January 2005, the paper reported that a 50-year-old Barnes student, Jay Raymond, had filed an appeal of the judge’s decision. Raymond was also a handyman on the grounds, and had taught at the school; his appeal went clear up to the state Supreme Court before (as the Times also reported) it was dismissed on the grounds that he had no standing to bring the suit.
The three big foundations committed to raising funds for the Barnes continued to do so, a fleet of experts seems to have been called in, to re-attribute 22 of those “Old Masters” at the Barnes, and in August 2006, the foundation chose a new director and CEO to replace Kimberly Camp. He was Derek Gillman, an Oxford-educated Brit whose academic career included study of psychology, philosophy and Chinese culture, but who had started his curatorial career at the British Museum, and most recently been president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
By this time, the three big foundations had raised more than $150 million, more than enough to pay for the new building and also provide an endowment. The State of Pennsylvania was also providing a $25 million grant to finance the move (according to Vogel, in the story announcing Gillman's appointment).
The paper still couldn’t leave the opposition to the move alone. In March 2007, in a sizeable story about Gillman, Julia Klein also felt obliged to mention that the move was once again opposed by the Friends of the Barnes, which she described as “a coalition of Merion residents, Barnes students, alumni and suburban legislators.” No mention of fresh legal action was made, but Klein added that “Many art critics have also condemned” the move.
In July 2007, the Times reported that Merion, evidently trying to make up for lost time, had passed a zoning ordinance that would permit the foundation to more than double the number of visitors per year; Montgomery County was also proposing to buy the foundation’s buildings & land for $50 million, the money to pay for it to be raised through a bond issue. The Barnes (surprise, surprise) had rejected the offer.
AND THE BEAT GOES ON….
In another indication that the paper’s heart was with the loyalists, Randy Kennedy, that same month, ran a big, sympathetic article on a 90-year-old teacher at the Barnes. The next month (August), Robin Pogrebin in the Times reported that the Friends of the Barnes had asked Judge Ott to rescind his permission for the move, arguing that there were new sources of revenue for the old Barnes, including the bond issue & new regulations that would permit 144,000 visitors a year, up from 62,000, as well as the $107 million that the state of Pennsylvania had now allotted to finance the move. The Friends wanted the board of trustees removed and the foundation placed in receivership.
Another story by Randy Kennedy two months later, in October, concerns what may or may not be a new petition. This time, the lawyers for the Friends and the government of Montgomery County were asking Ott to re-open the case, on the grounds that he was “misled” by the Barnes about its financial options. The judge seems to have gotten irked, and accused the Friends’ lawyer of trying to play to the crowd in the packed courtroom. Yet he calmed down, and simply asked the parties to establish a schedule to file additional papers.
In March 2008, more pleas to rescind the permission came before Judge Ott, this time with lawyers for the Barnes and the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office arguing in rebuttal that the county’s plan had come too late, and that to accept it would expose the Barnes to “extraordinary financial risk.”
After all, back in September 2007 Philadelphia’s mayor had already signed legislation authorizing the city to enter into a lease with the Barnes for a site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway then occupied by a juvenile detention center. In that same month, the foundation had also chosen its architects for the new building, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, a husband-and-wife team from New York.
Admittedly, Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NY Times’ architecture critic, had complained about the “secrecy” surrounding the choice of architects, and maintained that this wasn’t part of “the democratic process.” Nevertheless, the deed was done, and in May 2008, Judge Ott rejected a request from Montgomery County and the Friends for yet more hearings, ruling that they lacked the legal standing to make such a request.
Still, the complaints went on. In September 2009, a loyalist documentary by Don Argott about the Barnes, paid for by a former Barnes student and entitled “The Art of the Steal,” went on view at the Toronto Film Festival, as was duly reported by Mekado Murphy in the Times. When the movie got to New York, in February 2010, it rated two more articles in the Times – a sympathetic feature about Argott, by Constance Rosenblum, then a week later a favorable review by Manohla Dargis. She described it as a conflict of snobs v. vulgarians, but said it was “often very fine… It made me want to hop on a plane to Philadelphia as soon as possible to see the original before it’s emptied.” She did concede that “What remains, finally, is the larger question of whether deep pockets ensure custodial rights forever.”
Of course, the problem with Dr. Barnes was that his pockets hadn’t been deep enough – though he wasn’t quite as shortsighted as this long-running soap opera might suggest. A very interesting & overlooked fact appears on the FAQ page of the part of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ website devoted to its role in the Barnes Foundation move.
Q. Aren’t Pew and others being unfaithful to Dr. Barnes’s intentions by moving the collection?
A. Rarely reported, the governing document establishing the Barnes Foundation states that if the Foundation were no longer financially stable and needed to move, it would have the option to do so.
RIGHT UP TO NOW
The naysayers kept right on with their nays. When in October 2009, the Barnes released pictures of the design for the new museum, Ouroussoff started off his review with a single sentence that had more to do with sour grapes than esthetics: “Can a design convey an institution’s feeling of guilt?” And, when ground was broken for the new building the next month, Randy Kennedy reported that protesters were present, still claiming that the move hadn’t been financially necessary, but had been dictated by the Philadelphia political establishment in order to generate more downtown tourism. “This is not about art,” one protester was quoted saying, and Kennedy also quoted the signs saying “Crime Scene. Do Not Enter. Destruction of National Historical Landmark in Progress.”
Even as the building was being erected, the campaign to get the long-suffering Judge Ott to rescind his permission for the move kept on, and the Times continued to cover a story that was now verging upon the ludicrous. In March 2011, Randy Kennedy reported in the Times that the Montgomery County Orphans Court would hear yet more arguments in this dispute.
This time, the opponents of the move claimed that the case should be reopened because there was information in “The Art of the Steal” that had not been known in 2004, when the permission was given. A lawyer for the Barnes Foundation contended that it was -- the information being that the state attorney general had applied pressure to Lincoln University officials to get them to agree to the move. Ott ordered both sides to agree to a schedule for the case to be heard further.
I couldn’t find a story in the Times about the outcome to that exchange, but lo and behold, when I am accessing the Times database for all these old stories, I suddenly find one bylined Randy Kennedy and dated July 3, 2012 ! That’s right --- two months AFTER the new museum has opened! According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Friends of the Barnes have filed yet another petition, asking that the case be reopened because the court was given “inaccurate” information about the foundation’s financial health in 2004, eight years ago, when the original permission was given.
Apparently, Kimberly Camp, the foundation’s former CEO, has written in a blog that the Barnes was really solvent when its petition to move was originally filed & claiming bankruptcy. The foundation’s lawyer responded, in his statement to the Inquirer, that the only reason that the foundation was solvent at that time was because it was on a $3-million-a-year life support system of grants provided by the big foundations that would ultimately help it move.
The item in the Times (which I believe appeared only online) solicited comments, and got a mixed bag of them, which suggests that the art world, even among the die-hards, may slowly be learning to accept reality. True, there were still 6 readers bitching about the move, but another 5 (not counting me) were at least understanding of the reasons for it, and some even liked the idea.
“Get over it,” one of them advised the soreheads, but, seemingly to accommodate soreheads, the Sundance Channel scheduled a rerun of “The Art of the Steal” for prime time on July 10. The Times’ Adam W. Kepler, listing the show among the day’s offerings particularly worthy of attention, devoted 31 lines to it, recapitulating Manohla Dargis’s rave review in by far the longest listing of the day.