What’s in an art donor’s mind?

3 minute read
Who knows what lurks in a donor's mind?
Just ask the art establishment


It’s probably too late to contribute anything meaningful to the debate over relocating the Barnes Foundation’s collection from Merion to the Ben Franklin Parkway. But the debate over Albert Barnes’s intentions reminds me of an incident discussed more than 30 years ago in The Grand Acquisitors, the late John L. Hess’s magnificent book on behind-the-scenes shenanigans at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A generous but naïve 91-year-old spinster willed her entire collection of 231 works to the Met. Here is the exact language from the pertinent passage in her will:

"Without limiting in any way the absolute nature of this bequest, I request said Metropolitan Museum of Art not to sell any of said works of art, but to keep such of said works of art as it desires to retain for itself, and to give the balance to such one or more important Museums as said Metropolitan Museum of Art shall select, giving preference, first, to Museums situated in the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York, second, to museums situated elsewhere, in the State of New York, and third, to Museums situated in the State of Connecticut."

Pretty clear-cut and simple, yes? The spinster (who is reported to have pretty much dictated the terms) said, in effect: "Here is my collection. If you don't want any items, give them to other museums in New York City, or in New York State, or in Connecticut." But although the will was written with a lawyer’s assistance, the donor failed to reckon with the legal minds connected with the Met.

Did you catch the loophole in that passage? The Met’s lawyers did, in the opening words: "Without limiting in any way the absolute nature of this bequest. . ."

These were labeled as precatory (from the Latin word for "to pray") which meant (to the lawyer and the Met) that it was "her prayer" (i.e., her hope, not her "order") that the Met would do as she wished.

Thus the Metropolitan accepted the spinster’s collection of 231 works, and then violated her will (and ignored her "prayer"). As Hess reports: "The Met had sold at least 50 of the paintings and given none to any other museums." Needless to add, the spinster had no immediate relatives to object.

(What the Metropolitan did with the woman’s $1.5-million bequest is just as immoral, but that has no bearing on the debate over the Barnes.)

When covetous and powerful people set their minds to it, they will convince themselves and others that they know better than the donor what he meant in his will. In the present case, Philadelphia’s art establishment knows that what Albert Barnes meant in his will was: "Move the whole kit and caboodle to the Parkway in Philadelphia."

To read a response, click here.

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