Does Philly’s Big Talker, Michael Smerconish get the “It’s never too late to do the right thing” award? Not just yet.
Great to see Michael’s Philadelphia Inquirer Op-ed on the Barnes and why he and the Mrs. think the plan to remove the Barnes art collection from its home is “fundamentally wrong”. BUT in the same breath, he holds up the Parkway Barnes as a great “cultural enhancement” to Philadelphia. We see a big conflict with that thinking. "This is so fabulous, but it's so wrong" is a mentality used to justify a lot of things that have bad consequences.
Michael’s position that the Barnes move is a net gain for Philadelphia is based on common assumptions that are not supported by objective evidence.
Here are some facts:
· The Barnes is a Philadelphia cultural asset. It just happens to be literally a stone’s throw from the border between the City and Lower Merion. Are we so primitive that we have to physically drag the art collection over the boundary line to feel like it’s really Philadelphia’s? If the City wants the wage tax from the hefty salaries they pay management, let the Director and senior staff stay in their Philadelphia office and let them kick in.
· The Barnes is extraordinary by any measure and unique in the world. It is eligible for National Historic Landmark status and would most like qualify for UNESCO World Heritage designation. Remove the art collection from the historic Merion complex and it cannot qualify for either of those esteemed honors.
· The Barnes can already have at least 144,000 people a year plus school students. That means there can be as many and possibly more people visiting Merion as are expected annually at the Parkway after the initial two-year “honeymoon”. The current Board isn't motivated to make The Barnes in Merion more accessible because it would make it even harder to justify the move.
· The Barnes is financially sustainable. If not for the construction project, it would have a tiny annual budget that can be maintained with professional management and a Board of Trustees that wants to honor and support it instead of focusing on moving its art collection to Philadelphia.
On the other hand, let’s ask what does Philadelphia need?
· It needs a big cultural boost that is not controversial. The Barnes was, is, and will remain controversial. People’s memories are not as short as you think and The Barnes Affair has been a public relations fiasco for Philadelphia.
· It needs to save money now. The Parkway replica of the Barnes is slated to get almost $50 million in state taxpayer money. Besides the fact that this project was supposed to be funded privately, families and institutions across Pennsylvania and especially in Philadelphia are in dire need of help. Using tax funds to build a party house for galas while people go hungry is just sick.
· It needs to use scarce financial resources well in the future. A Parkway Barnes that is not widely supported and needs taxpayer funding to get built is very likely to need taxpayer support in the future. All regional institutions dip into the same well for financial support, whether you’re talking about private philanthropy or taxpayer funds. Dreaming that the well is going to grow bigger is a fantasy.
· It needs a museum of contemporary art, like other major cities in the United States. Albert Barnes collected the work of artists he knew. Today’s artists currently have no major exhibition space in Philadelphia. A museum for contemporary art would significantly raise the city’s profile and be an artistic endeavor that would win respect and boost tourism with something fresh, free from a boatload of controversy, and exciting.
We can do better than to rip-off Albert Barnes’ art collection and besides, people deserve to have the legacy he left to the world, not a mutilated fake. It's a national treasure after all. We can do better than what TIME magazine’s art critic Richard Lacayo called “death by disembowelment”. Let’s do something for art being created now.
So Michael, how about ramping things up a bit? Like doing absolutely everything you can think of to help prevent the move?