Relocation makes sense, but it would be wrong

By Edward J. Sozanski , Inquirer Staff Writer
May 4, 2003

As the courts ponder the proposed move of the Barnes Foundation from Merion to Center City, we examine where the world-renowned art institution stands.

Last of three parts.

The plight of the world-renowned Barnes Foundation reminds me of the memorable comment attributed to an American officer during the Vietnam War that, in order to save a village, U.S. forces had to destroy it.

Moving the Barnes art collection to a not-yet-selected site in Center City, as its board of trustees has proposed, is supposed to save the foundation from financial collapse. If the plan passes legal muster, it might possibly accomplish that goal.

Yet even if it does, the Barnes will not be "saved." It will be transformed into a different institution, a mass-market tourist attraction that will primarily benefit the city and the other cultural institutions along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway - the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Franklin Institute, and the Academy of Natural Sciences - that long to share the Barnes' star quality.

The collection might survive the eight-mile trip from Merion to the Parkway intact, but the ineffable spirit of the Barnes, the quality that makes it a special place, will not. That would be a tragedy, pure and simple.

Under the plan announced last fall, the foundation will be rent in two. The multitude of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses and Picassos, the potential moneymakers, will relocate to Touristville, but the 12-acre arboretum and its attendant horticulture program will stay put on North Latches Lane.

This might not seem like such a big deal, but in fact these two halves of the Barnes are complementary. They produce a synergy that contributes to the foundation's distinctive and seductive genius loci - spirit of place.

Perhaps you've never heard that term or, if you have, don't believe in it. But genius loci is real; it's what makes your house feel like "home." And the Barnes Foundation has been marinating in it for eight decades.

The personality of founder Albert Coombs Barnes pervades every square foot of the gallery building. His wife, Laura, put her stamp on the arboretum.

Albert Barnes was not only a complex and combative person, he was in his own way an imaginative creator. His foundation is a work of art. Because its program in art embodies the ideas of philosopher John Dewey, it also represents a significant chapter in American educational history.

The foundation's architectural legacy adds another savory ingredient to its genius loci. Paul Cret's French-Renaissance-style gallery building, ornamented by modernist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, establishes the character of the site.

Like the art collection, Cret's design is an evocative period piece, a visual anchor to the time when Barnes set out to establish a program of art education.

The building, the arboretum and the collection, installed like a giant, purposeful mosaic in the foundation's 23 domestically-scaled rooms, generate a magical feeling of refuge.

All art institutions work this way to a certain degree, but at the Barnes the atmosphere is particularly intense. The frenetic bustle of modern life evaporates the moment one walks or drives through the front gate.

It takes multiple visits to appreciate this marvelous quality, which is why Barnes students appear to be most sensitive to it, and why most resist any initiative to alter it.

The restrictions on visitors and traffic under which the foundation is forced by township zoning regulations to operate are actually virtues, in one sense, because they enhance the unique experience the place offers.

The Barnes is small, quiet and contemplative. No one has persuasively argued that a Barnes on the Parkway could ever be.

In fact, there is only one plausible rationale for relocating the collection - money. Supporters of the petition to Montgomery County Orphans' Court, which must approve any change in the foundation's operating rules, cite the financial benefits to the city of Philadelphia.

These boil down to more hotel nights, more restaurant reservations, and more taxi fares. But why should the foundation, which is primarily a school, be obliged to subsidize the city's tourist industry?

If the collection moves, the school must also move, because the collection is the primary teaching tool. Would the school survive such a transition? I think not. Inevitably the museum activity would overwhelm the educational function. After all, the foundation doesn't want to move in order to serve its students, but rather to service museumgoers.

Why allow a few hundred students to tie up a priceless art collection when tens of thousands of art-lovers purportedly lust to see it?

This may sound far-fetched, but consider that several rich and influential foundations are facilitating this relocation. The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Annenberg Foundation are helping the Barnes trustees raise the estimated $150 million needed to effect the move.

A portion of this sum would establish an endowment that would allow the foundation to support itself. The Barnes had a modest endowment once, but spent it.

The big foundations are also covering the foundation's operating deficits while the relocation petition moves through the court system.

At last report, these foundations had raised more than half the money needed. This is more than the Barnes would require to stabilize itself financially over the long term in Merion.

In effect, the foundations are executing a hostile takeover by offering the Barnes trustees a deal they can't refuse - big money to move, no money otherwise.

Genius loci aside, the Barnes doesn't need to move. Profits from the international tour of masterpiece paintings that began 10 years ago enabled the foundation to refurbish and repair its 1925 gallery building.

It's now perfectly sound and historically significant, so why abandon it? The Barnes even has a parking lot now. It accommodates only about 50 cars, and visitors pay for the privilege, but hey, can you park at the Louvre? At the Museum of Modern Art?

The canard that the Barnes must move because it's remote and inaccessible, and because it lacks sufficient parking, needs to be permanently retired.

The foundation is no farther from Center City than Chestnut Hill. It's no more than 20 minutes by car on the expressway - and you can park in the neighborhood if you're willing to walk five minutes.

It's also readily accessible by the Route 44 bus, which drops visitors less than five minutes from the gate, and a bit less so by the R-5 SEPTA train. As a world-class destination, the Barnes is worth a bit of planning and effort to reach.

The foundation is severely hobbled by Lower Merion Township, which, under zoning laws, restricts visitors to 400 a day, three days per week - and unreasonably counts students from its own public schools against that number.

Yet moving the institution seems like an excessively drastic response to this limitation. When classes are running, the foundation could accept visitors on a fourth weekday - an additional 20,000 a year that would certainly boost revenue.

Is is truly impossible that the township wouldn't ease up a bit if the issue were civilly negotiated? Casual observation suggests that the foundation does not generate a lot of local traffic, not nearly as much, for instance, as the Episcopal Academy next door.

The decision to move also appears to ignore the fact that under director Kimberly Camp, the Barnes is gradually moving away from the threat of insolvency that prompted the plan to relocate.

Since late 1998, when she arrived in Merion, Camp has reduced a deficit of $3.313 million to about $800,000 last year. The operating budget still runs in the red about $2 million a year, but that shouldn't be an insurmountable problem. As the subsidizing foundations have already demonstrated, money is available for worthy causes.

Equally important, Camp rectified a long-standing deficiency by assembling the foundation's first professional staff, creating a number of new managerial positions in the process. (She is, in fact, the Barnes' first professional director.) Camp also inaugurated a program to fully assess the foundation's extensive collection, and solicited the foundation grants to support it.

Professional management has invigorated the Barnes over the last four years. Earned income has increased, and cooperative educational programs have been established with Lower Merion Township and one Philadelphia elementary school. Similar programs with area colleges and universities are being explored.

OK, some may rejoin, the Barnes has become professionalized, and perhaps it could survive in Merion while remaining faithful to its traditional mission if Camp's hoped-for financial "angel" turned up. But doesn't moving to Center City just make sense?

Robert Hass, poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997, can answer that. In a new book about the Great Lakes, author Jerry Dennis asked Hass how he felt about drilling for gas and oil in the lakes.

Hass opined that the idea made sense in several ways. "But something can make sense and still be wrong," he said. "If history has taught us anything, it's that there is never a shortage of practical, hardheaded people making one wrong decision after another because it makes sense."

Relocating the Barnes might make sense, especially to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation and the Art Museum, but it would be wrong. Not just wrong, but tragic.

However, I'm presuming that the move will likely happen, because there's too much money at stake on both sides of the table. If it does, I expect that the Barnes will become the punch line of an old joke: "The operation was successful, but the patient died."

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