Mon, May 02, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Staying power

Plans to move the Barnes Foundation have fueled debate over whether the museum’s uniqueness could be compromised

By Daniel Kelley  /  AFP, Philadelphia

“From the moment you hit the ground to the moment you’ve left, it was meant to educate you on how artists think. It shouldn’t be place where you can buy a coffee and go to the gift shop,” said Lance Esplund, an art critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications who took classes at the foundation in the 1980s.

The institution is no stranger to controversy. Shortly after its founder’s death, a lawsuit over the foundation’s tax status forced it to open its doors to the public. Even then, visitors were limited to about 200 per day.

There have also been fights with neighbors, who in the 1990s objected to tour buses and large crowds in their quiet, wealthy, neighborhood. An ensuing court battle depleted the Barnes’ finances and pushed it to the brink of insolvency.

Leaders at the Barnes promise that galleries at the proposed site will be exact replicas of the current layout and they are exasperated by the determination of opponents.

“It’s a tremendously complex story,” said Andrew Stewart, marketing director for the Barnes Foundation. “The story has been so misrepresented. When you talk about the will, that’s when the hyperbole starts. It’s difficult to have a rational conversation about it.”

The documentary, The Art of the Steal, probably can claim credit for doing most to galvanize opposition. It uses the pacing and tempo of a spy thriller to allege a massive, decades-long conspiracy aimed at getting the Barnes collection under the control of the local business and political elite with whom Albert Barnes once sparred.

The documentary also helped re-ignite the court battle.

In it, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher discusses pressure he placed on the leadership of Lincoln University, a small, African-American college that was given a controlling position at the Barnes, as part of the donor’s last wishes, to relinquish control of the Barnes’ board of directors. Those comments, advocates say, show that Fisher violated his duty to act in the public interest in dealing with public charities. They question how civic leaders have been able to come up with US$150 million to build a new home for the foundation, but couldn’t provide the cash to keep the Barnes in its current location.

Lawyers for the Barnes allege that much of what the documentary supposedly uncovered as new was already published in news articles.

However, Sam Stretton, a lawyer for opponents of relocation, said the judge never heard those arguments in court. Hearings are expected this month and some predict that the whole move could be scrapped. Barnes officials, on the other hand, are confident.

“We’re looking forward to having the new building open, getting all this stuff resolved,” Stewart said.

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