Eakins vs. Barnes

6 minute read
291 albertbarnes
Art wars:
Dr. Barnes and Dr. Gross


Thomas Jefferson University’s controversial decision to sell Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic has been seized upon by opponents of the court-approved move of the Barnes collection to center city Philadelphia.

Their argument, reduced to its essence, is that it’s hypocritical to mount an effort to keep The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia while accepting or supporting the relocation of Albert Barnes’s magnificent collection of Impressionist and Post-impressionist art. But the argument is a non sequitur, because the two issues are quite different in substance.

In one respect the two cases are similar. Both the Barnes collection and The Gross Clinic have strong historical ties to Philadelphia and as such occupy substantial space in our cultural patrimony. For this reason alone, each should remain here, even if not in its current physical location. In this regard, it is specious to contend that the move from Lower Merion to the Ben Franklin Parkway is equivalent to a move from Philadelphia to Bentonville, Arkansas.

As important as this one similarity is, there are several differences of greater significance.

Paramount among these is the fact that no legal restrictions apply to Jefferson’s right to dispose of The Gross Clinic as it chooses, since it doesn’t hold the object in the public trust and since its possession doesn’t contribute directly to the institution’s primary mission as a not-for-profit organization.

In contrast, the board of the Barnes Foundation cannot act freely with respect to its assets, the most valuable of which is the priceless collection that has been on permanent display in Lower Merion. The reason why is that the Foundation is a tax-exempt entity and, as such, holds all that it possesses in the public trust. In other words, the citizens of Pennsylvania, not just the Barnes board, have an interest in the Barnes Foundation’s assets and how they are managed. Fortunately, this public interest is protected by the Montgomery County Orphans Court.

Albert Barnes's roads not taken

This particular situation need not have been the case. Albert Barnes could have bequeathed his entire collection, for example, to his long-time associate Violette de Mazia, and she, in turn, to a beneficiary of her choosing. In this case either Ms. de Mazia or her heir could have done with the collection as they wished, without restrictions: housed the collection at a place of their choice; auctioned the collection as a set; sold individual pieces one at a time; given paintings to friends; or burned the collection in the back yard.

Alternatively, Barnes could have done what he did— create a foundation to which the collection would be given— but provide a cash endowment far in excess of the $9 million he did leave, unconstrained by the short-sighted investment restrictions he in fact stipulated. In this case, his foundation would have been so financially secure in perpetuity that its governing board would, most likely, never have approached an Orphans Court judge to request permission to do anything, including relocate the collection.

Different cases, different ground rules

For better or worse, Albert Barnes did neither of these things, with the result that his foundation’s governing board has appeared frequently before the court because of the specific content of his will and the need to insure that the public interest would be protected whenever a dispute arose. Most recently, the Foundation’s board petitioned the Court for the joint purpose of restructuring itself and relocating the collection to Center City Philadelphia in order to avoid bankruptcy. This is the context within which Judge Stanley R. Ott made his ruling, granting both requests.

Thus the decisions to sell The Gross Clinic and to relocate the Barnes collection were made in totally different contexts by bodies governed by altogether different ground rules. Jefferson’s board acted autonomously, without any restraints imposed by the public interest. In the Barnes case, Judge Ott ruled as he did presumably because he thought (as did the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which upheld his decision) it was in the public interest to do so.

What Albert Barnes wanted

There are other noteworthy differences. Relocating the Barnes collection doesn’t violate Greater Philadelphia’s cultural patrimony; it secures that particular part of our heritage. The move to the Parkway simultaneously keeps the collection in Greater Philadelphia and enables the Barnes Foundation to fulfill more completely one of Albert Barnes’s most important objectives. As is well known, Dr. Barnes’s target audience for his artwork were people “who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories and schools, stores and similar places.” As I have argued in an earlier piece in this journal, this objective is more likely to be achieved in Center City than in a posh enclave not easily accessible to those Barnes wanted to be the beneficiaries of his bequest.

In contrast, moving The Gross Clinic to Arkansas inflicts great damage on our patrimony, but selling it to a local consortium (including most likely the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) would allow the painting to remain in the city where it belongs. If this were to happen, not only would Jefferson’s primary mission (to provide high quality medical education) not be compromised, the proceeds from the sale would actually enhance Jefferson’s ability to carry out that mission. What’s more, The Gross Clinic would receive the quality of conservation attention and enhanced security made possible by professional museums, not to mention the type of venue that would attract a larger viewing audience than the estimated 500 persons per year who currently see it.

The decisions made by Judge Ott and by Jefferson’s governing board were admittedly difficult, and as such they invite disagreements over their wisdom and fairness. Under no circumstances, however, do those decisions justify Robert Zaller’s conclusion in this journal: “Philadelphia deserves to lose The Gross Clinic. It deserves to feel what it’s like to be on the other end of grand larceny.”

Philadelphia deserves nothing of the sort. What it deserves is the retention and the preservation of invaluable parts of its artistic heritage. This is possible in the case of both the Barnes collection and The Gross Clinic.

Gresham Riley ([email protected]) is president emeritus of Colorado College (Colorado Springs, Colo.), former president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a professor of philosophy who is currently engaged in an extended research project on the topic of evil. He lives in Old City, Philadelphia.

To read responses, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation