The Art of the Steal — The Plot Thickens

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Let’s get back again to Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal, the new documentary about the sad fate of the Barnes collection.

The beginning of the end for the Barnes can probably be dated to the arrival of Richard H. Glanton, a big personality with big ambitions for the Barnes and himself, not necessarily in that order.

Glanton was general counsel for Lincoln University. As I mentioned in yesterday’s second post, that’s the historically black college that had effective control over the Barnes after Albert Barnes gave its trustees the power to name members to the board of the Barnes Foundation.

In 1988, when Lincoln began to exert serious control over the Barnes, the school’s board chairman was Franklin Williams, a sophisticated lawyer and diplomat who joined the board of the Barnes that year and was named president of the foundation one year later.

Williams appeared likely to guide the Barnes with a steady, judicious hand. As a first step he put together an art advisory dream team that included two of the most prominent curators in the U.S. — the late Kirk Varnedoe from the Museum of Modern Art and Garry Tinterow of the Metropolitan Museum in New York — as well as Tom Freudenheim, the Smithsonian Institution’s assistant secretary of museums, and the art Dealer Richard Feigen. (Ironically, it also included the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution Barnes had feuded with for much of his life.) But in May 1990 Williams died of throat cancer. In June the Lincoln trustees elected Glanton to a spot on the Barnes board and the following month made him president.

Like Barnes, Glanton came from a poor family but had worked his way up, in his case to partnership in a large law firm. John Anderson’s book, Art Held Hostage, paints him as a shrewd and well connected operator who saw the Barnes as a chance to advance his own ambitions, which may have included political office — someone who found ways to bring much needed money into the Barnes but found even more ways to spend it again, leaving the cupboard almost bare by the time he left. Though The Art of the Steal offers fewer judgments on Glanton — who appears on camera repeatedly in Argott’s film to speak for himself — it offers judgments by a former Barnes trustee, David Rawson, and by former Barnes art adviser Tom Freudenheim that Glanton was hell bent to use the collection to amass more money than the Barnes needed and in ways that would not be in keeping with Barnes’ wishes. Anderson and a former Barnes student, Nick Tinari, appear on camera to scoff at Glanton’s claims that the Barnes building required a multi-million dollar repair job. Though Freudenheim agrees that the Barnes had physical maintenance issues, he concludes that Glanton was willing to adopt methods that were “clearly illegal and unethical”.

What nobody disputes is that Glanton wanted to shake things up at the Barnes. By November he had gone before the Montgomery County court that oversees wills, and which could adjust the terms of governance for the Barnes, to request a one-time authority for the Barnes board to consider selling at least 15 works from the collection, something Barnes had strictly forbidden. It was an idea that Glanton arrived at with Walter Annenberg, Barnes’ lifelong enemy.

In the face of widespread opposition, not least from the art advisory committee, the Barnes board eventually dropped its plans to attempt a sale. But by 1991 Glanton was in high gear on another front. As an alternative way to raise money, Glanton got the court’s permission to launch a multi-city tour of pictures from the Barnes collection while its building was undergoing what would be a $12 million renovation. Though some experts maintained that the paintings were too fragile to travel, 82 canvases went on tour for two and a half years to museums in Washington, Fort Worth, Toronto, Paris, Tokyo and Munich, ending at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with each institution kicking in millions to cover the cost of the tour and the Barnes reaping profits from sales of the glossy catalogue.

Glanton went on tour with them, and had a high time of it. In Argott’s film he recalls excitedly how in every city he was feted by the local dignitaries for sending them what he calls “the greatest exhibition in the history of Western civilization” —  a bit of an overstatement, but it was certainly a hit. With more than 4.5 million visitors it was the second most heavily visited art tour after that mother of all blockbusters the King Tut extravaganza of the 1970s. It reportedly brought the Barnes $17 million in rental fees, plus its cut of gift shop and catalogue sales. But most of that went to cover the cost of the renovation. And meanwhile the Barnes endowment was being burdened by legal fees to fight various court battles. And one of the the biggest was still to come.

Not long after the paintings came home in the spring of 1995, Glanton started moving to increase the number of people permitted to visit the Barnes on its suburban street in a residential neighborhood. This set off a major battle with the neighbors, who were aggrieved by the buses and crowds they suddenly had to contend with. When Glanton developed plans for a new parking lot on the Barnes property, the neighbors objected and even started videotaping the buses. Glanton replied by accusing them of racism — something he had been prone to do before — and suing them and members of the board of commissioners of Lower Merion Township — under the Ku Klux Klan Act, no less. Three years and a fortune in legal fees later, the matter was largely settled when the Barnes agreed to withdraw its suit and pay the township $100,000 and the township agreed to drop a counterclaim they had filed.  As it happens by that time the town had also agreed to approve the parking lot.

Soon after Glanton was also out as Barnes president. And as Argott’s film lays out, with the Barnes endowment perilously low, the stage was set for Philadelphia’s power brokers to put in motion a plan to drag the Barnes collection into Philadelphia.

But that’s for the next post.