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The pointless search for Barnes villainsBY: Dan Rottenberg 04.06.2010
The Barnes Foundation’s move from Merion to the Parkway may be an artistic tragedy, but the relentless search for villains is a misguided distraction. If there’s any villain in this saga, it’s Albert Barnes himself, who imposed so many restrictions on his Barnes Foundation that no sane philanthropist would help rescue the place until his trust was broken.
Who appointed Richard Glanton? (and
When art lovers confront a cultural tragedy like the forthcoming uprooting of the Barnes Foundation collection from its unique Merion setting, one natural reaction is to find villains to blame. The notion that the Barnes has been “stolen” from Merion by an evil conspiracy of tycoons and politicians— including but not necessarily limited to Ed Rendell, Mike Fisher, Walter Annenberg, Rebecca Rimel, Raymond Perelman, Gerald Lenfest, Anne d’Harnoncourt and Richard Glanton— is appealing and understandable.
It’s also, I would argue, a misguided distraction. The Barnes move to Ben Franklin Parkway in Center City strikes me more as a case of a failure of imagination by well-intentioned but fallible human beings.
The Barnes Foundation’s past and present trustees— none of whom, incidentally, is affiliated with any of the three foundations accused of “stealing” the Barnes— could have built a blockbuster museum on the Parkway to house the three-fifths of Albert Barnes’s paintings that (because he refused to alter the Merion hangings) have never been seen by anyone other than the Barnes Foundation’s janitors. They could have left the Merion mansion and its collection intact while providing convenient shuttle bus service between the Parkway and Merion. They could have acquired contiguous land in Merion from the departing Episcopal Academy to provide parking as well as access to City Line Avenue without disturbing the Barnes’s residential neighbors.
In short, with a little ingenuity they could have created a global artistic attraction that’s more convenient to Philadelphia than, say, Monet’s celebrated studios and gardens at Giverny are to Paris. They still could, come to think of it.
Their lack of appreciation for the Merion building’s small-scale magnificence, I would argue, was impaired not by greed or power hunger but by a desire to do something big with the huge sums of money put at their disposal once Barnes’s will was broken. This is indeed an artistic calamity, but not a terribly sexy one. How many tickets do you suppose you could sell to a film titled The Art of the Well-Meaning Misjudgment?
If indeed there’s any villain in this saga, it’s Albert Barnes himself, who imposed so many restrictions on the Barnes Foundation that no sane philanthropist would help rescue the place as Barnes’s original $10 million endowment (which seemed huge when he died in 1951) inevitably ran out. It was not power-hungry white outsiders but the financially strapped Barnes trustees themselves who petitioned to expand the board from five trustees to 15, thus finally making the Barnes attractive to mega-philanthropists and putative civic saviors.
But of course Barnes wasn’t a villain either. He was a brilliant albeit fallible human whose greatest failing was his unwillingness to recognize his fallibility. (For my definitive discussion of the Barnes situation, see “The Devil and Albert Barnes,” which appeared in Philadelphia Style magazine, January 2003.)
The tireless Professor Zaller
Ground Zero for Barnes conspiracy theories these days, of course, seems to be located right here at Broad Street Review, especially in the voluminous output of our most prolific, articulate and passionate contributor, the Drexel University history professor Robert Zaller. I haven’t replied to most of these arguments, because it behooves me to listen to the views of others, since I might be wrong.
Besides, I’m so busy editing and posting Zaller’s commentaries that at the end of the day I’m too exhausted to respond to them. I haven’t even had time to go see The Art of the Steal, for goodness’ sake. Really, when does this guy find time to teach and grade papers?
(Supporters of the Barnes move have foolishly declined to a make their case proactively in public, but I can empathize with their failure to respond to their critics; after all, they have only so many hours in the day.)
Paul Levy: right or wrong?
Zaller castigates Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, for claiming at a recent forum that (a) the Barnes’s financial condition in the 1990s was far more perilous than The Art of the Steal disclosed, and (b) Lincoln University was unprepared to actively manage the Barnes, as Albert Barnes had stipulated.
Zaller, in response, claims that the Barnes operated “comfortably in the black for 40 years after Albert Barnes’s death in 1951,” and that only with the arrival of the politically ambitious Richard Glanton as board chairman in 1992 did financial problems arise. But the Barnes operated in the black only by deferring necessary capital renovations for decades. Glanton may have been an egotist with a personal agenda, but he recognized the Barnes’s need for modern environmental controls. It was to pay for those that Glanton first successfully sought permission to break Albert Barnes’s will in order to take 72 paintings on tour.
Wachman’s revealing memoirs
As for Lincoln University’s preparedness to run the Barnes, Zaller suggests that “Lincoln had plenty of time to prepare for its responsibilities” and was discharging them appropriately “until the unfortunate ascent of Richard Glanton.” But of course it was Lincoln that appointed Glanton.
More to the point, early in this decade I worked closely with the late Marvin Wachman, who was president of Lincoln from 1961 to 1970. Wachman’s memoir, The Education of a University President (Temple University Press, 2005), contains an instructive three-page section on the Barnes.
In it, Wachman discusses Albert Barnes’s interests in African art. He notes that the first Lincoln-appointed Barnes board member— Dr. George D. Cannon, in the late ’60s— was chosen because “Dr. Cannon had taken two years of instruction at the Barnes Foundation and concurred with Barnes’s philosophy.” He mentions that Lincoln’s art professors “were thrilled to have a relationship [with the Barnes] that could benefit their students.” He describes an honorary degree that Lincoln conferred (in absentia) on Barnes’s protégé Violette de Mazia.
From asset to burden
“At that time,” Wachman concludes, “all of the Barnes trustees were preoccupied with honoring the terms of Albert Barnes’s will…. Only toward the end of the 1990s, as the Barnes Foundation, under the leadership of Richard Glanton, staggered under the cost of renovations and protracted lawsuits, did it occur to anyone that such a connection might be more of a burden to Lincoln than an asset.”
In other words, Lincoln’s administrators couldn’t foresee the future any better than Albert Barnes or you and I. And even if you argue, as Zaller does, that the costly litigation set in motion by Glanton in the ’90s was ill-conceived (one suit accused the Barnes’s neighbors of racism, among other things), or even that it represented a deliberate attempt to bankrupt the Barnes so it could be “rescued” by fat cats, the question remains:
Who appointed Glanton to the Barnes board, if not Lincoln University? And why was he chosen? Was it not because Lincoln’s desperate administrators were happy to embrace a Pied Piper who promised to relieve them of their Barnes burden?
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