The Plot Thickens

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Yesterday Mark Schwartz, an attorney representing the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a non-profit group attempting to prevent the Barnes collection from being moved from its home in Merion, Pa. to Philadelphia, filed a petition in Montgomery County Orphan’s Court asking Judge Stanley Ott to rescind his earlier decision permitting the move. Blogger Tyler Green and Jim McCaffrey of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin have both obtained copies of the filing and provide details on line.

The filing is a step that’s been expected for some time. The surprising part is how far the 79-page petition goes in making some explosive claims, namely that the process that culminated in Ott’s decision was riddled with conflicts of interest. Attorney Schwartz had originally been retained by the Board of Commissioners of Montgomery County, where the Barnes is located, to file the petition on their behalf. But Schwartz resigned after members of the Board, which is also seeking to keep the Barnes in Merion, decided that they didn’t want to be associated with some of the claims that Schwartz was preparing to make. His petition points the finger at a whole roster of players in the Barnes mess, including Barnes Foundation President Bernard Watson, the trustees of Lincoln University — that’s the Pennsylvania school that was given control of the Barnes Foundation by Barnes himself — Pennsylvania’s Gov. Ed Rendell and the state attorney general.

Here’s just one of those claims:

“The attorney general, instead of assuring adversarial proceedings in this matter, became an active participant with Gov. Ed Rendell to pressure Lincoln University trustees to withdraw their opposition to the Barnes Foundation’s petition [for permission to move its collection, thus breaking the terms of Barnes’ will] in exchange for a commitment by the commonwealth [that’s the state of Pennsylvania for you out-of-staters] to give Lincoln University millions of dollars of taxpayer money. The attorney general did not recognize its conflicts or those of others.”

The most intriguing claim of all? That if the Barnes collection does move to Philadelphia, it may not end up, as is now the plan, in a purpose-built new museum. That project has already run into a number of obstacles. Instead, the petition suggests, the priceless collection could end up in “a place of last resort” —  which might just be the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That’s the very institution that Barnes spent a good part of his life feuding with.

One other irony here. The Philly Museum already possesses the collection assembled by Barnes’ friend and attorney John G. Johnson. At his death in 1917 Johnson left over 1200 paintings and his house to the city of Philadelphia. But in 1933 the city and the Pennsylvania Museum of Art — as the Philadelphia Museum was then called — successfully petitioned a judge to demolish the house and move Johnson’s collection into the museum. Barnes watched the whole episode unfold with complete dismay, and over the years moved repeatedly to insure that nothing of the kind could ever happen to his collection. We’ll see.