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Barnes Day in the ‘Inquirer’BY: Robert Zaller 03.09.2010
With no less than four articles and columns last Sunday, the Inquirer finally got around to acknowledging the fracas over the Barnes Foundation’s proposed move. But Barnes chairman Bernard Watson’s op-ed defense of the move is replete with evasions and distortions.
A few tidbits
For years, Philadelphia’s newspaper of record has stood demurely aside from the fracas over moving the Barnes Foundation from Merion. It was thus with some surprise that I recently found myself approached by the Inquirer’s Kevin Ferris to offer my thoughts about the Barnes. I was told there would be a rejoinder from the other side, but not from whom. In fact, when I opened my Sunday paper on March 7, I found not two articles about the Barnes but four— two apiece in the Arts and Entertainment section and two, including my own, in Currents.
There I discovered that my interlocutor was Dr. Bernard C. Watson, chair of the Barnes Foundation’s Board of Trustees— the man who spent the Barnes’s endowment down to zero defending his predecessor Richard Glanton’s attempt to prosecute the Barnes Foundation’s Latch’s Lane neighbors and Lower Merion Township under a statute designed to combat the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan.
Before Dr. Watson’s involvement with the Barnes, he had had a distinguished public career in Philadelphia. But his article is replete with evasions and distortions.
Spending into insolvency
Item: Dr. Watson’s contends that the Barnes board petitioned for the move “only after exhausting all other viable alternatives to keep the collection in Merion.” On the contrary, Dr. Watson’s own decision to spend the Barnes into insolvency contesting the scathing dismissal of Glanton’s suit made it so. Dr. Watson glosses over the $100 million state appropriation to move the Barnes in a passage in which he notes only that it was designated for a “building” in Philadelphia and “not to help the foundation’s chronic operating deficits in Merion.” He manages, in an extraordinary feat of verbal legerdemain, never to mention that the building in question was the new Barnes. He also fails to mention the Barnes board meeting of September 30, 2002, attended by Ed Rendell, in which the deal to move the Barnes to Philadelphia was clinched, and which was duly followed three weeks later by passage of what has come to be known as the “immaculate appropriation.”
Dr. Watson states that “all other viable alternatives” had been exhausted prior to petitioning for the move. What were they? Did he approach the Pew, the Annenberg Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation— the principal supporters of the move— for money to keep the Barnes in Merion instead of moving it? Any other potential benefactor? Did he ask the state for money to keep the Barnes in Merion instead of moving it? Did he discuss the matter with Montgomery County and its legislative representatives? Did he consider selling assets not covered by the Barnes Foundation’s indenture of trust?
Dr. Watson, exactly what did you do to save the Barnes in Merion as you were spending its last millions in litigation?
Item: Dr. Watson states that the move “was the result of a prolonged and transparent court proceeding, lasting over two years.” He fails to note that one reason for its prolongation was that Judge Stanley R. Ott, in disgust at the poor preparation of the Barnes petition, recessed the proceeding from January to September 2004.
He also omits the fact that the $100 million state appropriation, which the petitioners were statutorily obliged to disclose, was never mentioned in court. Judge Ott found out about it only in September 2006, when he was advised of it by a member of the Friends of the Barnes, who asked him whether he regarded the information as material and whether it might have affected his decision. Judge Ott responded affirmatively on both counts, in writing. So much for transparency.
In fact, opponents of the move were denied full standing in court by Judge Ott, so that they were unable to challenge assertions made by the petitioners or compel discovery of the record. The interests of the Barnes trust were supposedly represented by Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Mike Fisher, who as we now know was actively brokering the move behind the court’s back even as the matter was in the dock.
Item: Dr. Watson quotes an article from the Barnes indenture stating that should its collection “ever . . . become impossible to administer,” the Foundation’s assets might be “applied to an object as nearly within” its purposes as possible “in connection with an existing organization” in Philadelphia or its suburbs. Yet this article speaks only of the orderly disposition of the Foundation’s assets to other parties in case it were to fail. It says nothing about the Foundation itself using its own gross and willful mismanagement as an excuse to transplant its operations to Philadelphia, an option specifically denied it elsewhere in the Indenture.
And, certainly, the Barnes is not “impossible to administer” in Merion. My own Inquirer article opposite Watson’s outlines several ways in which it could be put on a perfectly sound financial footing in Merion even now.♦
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