The Art of the Steal — The Final Act

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On to the last chapter of the Barnes saga in The Art of the Steal, wherein the trap snaps shut. As I said at the beginning of this five-part blogging opus — by all means, when it goes into theatrical release next spring, go see The Art of the Steal. Just don’t go looking for a happy ending.

Eventually the three foundations that became involved with the Barnes — see my previous post to find out which ones — would pledge to raise $150 million — $50 million to replenish the Barnes endowment and $100 million to build a new home for it in Philadelphia. But as former Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher bluntly says on camera: “It was pretty clear to me they weren’t just going to give 50, 70 100 million dollars without getting control of the Barnes board.”

But first there was the problem of another board, Lincoln University’s, which controlled the Barnes board but opposed the idea of the Barnes move. Fisher, whose office is charged with protecting trusts, but who appears to have favored the move himself, tells the camera that he never told the Lincoln board that the Barnes could be taken away from them if they didn’t cooperate.

But then he adds, with a little smile:

“I had to explain to them that maybe the attorney general’s office would have to take some action involving them that might have to change the complexion of the board. Whether I said that directly or I implied it, I think they finally got the message.”

Then Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell came along to play good cop, promising about $40 million in additional state funding to Lincoln. On camera Rendell is careful to insist that he told the school that the money was theirs no matter how they acted on the question of the move. But forgive me for thinking that, as Fisher says, “they got the message.”

Not long after, Lincoln had its state money and a nice new student center. And ten new members had been added to the Barnes board, none of them chosen by Lincoln, permanently diluting Lincoln’s influence as plans for the move went forward.

And forward they went. The now fully compliant Barnes board went to court seeking permission to move the collection. In December 2004, Montgomery County Judge Stanley Ott, whose court oversees wills and trusts, ruled that the Barnes could indeed be moved to Philadelphia as the only way to save it. Later opponents of the Barnes move went back to court in an attempt to get Ott to revisit his decision after the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight reported that, oddly, somebody had placed a $107 million appropriation in the 2001/2002 Pennsylvania state budget, $100 million of it to build a new Barnes museum downtown. This was years before the Barnes trustees had actually requested permission to move.

At the very least this suggests a certain amount of coordination behind the scenes. But Ott declined to revisit his decision. Montgomery County offered to float a $50 million bond to re-endow the Barnes and keep it where it is. The township eased the restrictions on visitor numbers to the Barnes and the Barnes neighbors, who had famously opposed its new parking lot, joined the effort to keep the Barnes in their neighborhood even with more visitors. All pointless. The deal was done.

It’s never been clear to me why, if the foundations could raise so much money to move the Barnes, they couldn’t raise a fraction of that to restore its endowment and keep it where it was as the unique place it is. Eventually it will be moved to a building being designed by Tod Williams & Billie Tsien, first rate architects who will probably do a brilliant job. But they won’t be able to “reproduce” the Barnes experience, though something like that is their mandate from the court, because, in what’s likely to be one more tourist-inundated big city museum, that’s not possible.

What does it all come down to? By the late 1980s, the Barnes may well have been in serious straits financially, and in even worse ones ten years later. But people who could have mattered weren’t inclined to look for ways to rescue the place and keep it intact in the home Barnes intended for it. That home happens to be a unique experience, in a location that’s not hard to reach but easy to fall in love with when you take the small trouble to get there. Barnes was a truculent man and a dubious art theorist, but his house is a treasure chest that cannot be reproduced on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, even by the most well-meaning of architects. As somebody says in the movie, it’s “a handmade thing in a machine world”.

There’s a final irony, which The Art of the Steal takes note of by way of a text on screen:

[Walter] Annenberg died in 2002, and left his collection to the Met — with the stipulation that it never be moved, sold or loaned.

Good luck with that.