Tag Archives: Barnes Foundation Board of Trustees

Wednesday , August 26 , 2015

Plowing Under Progressive Ideals of the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway

photo by Jared Castaldi for Main Line Today

 

At the Friends of the Barnes Foundation Forum held in June 2006, historian Robert Zaller delivered a charge against Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundations, and others involved in the plan to move the Barnes art collection to Philadelphia.  His message rolled over the fully packed auditorium like thunder: 

 

 “It is the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II…it is our duty to stop it.”

 

The place was electrified.  Otherwise reserved citizens leapt to their feet and roared back with shouts of approval and applause.  You had to be there!  Actually, you really did have to be there because the newspaper didn’t report on the Forum. It might have been an unprecedented event about the region’s most controversial arts and culture story, but an editor of the Inquirer excused the lack of cverage with “Gee, we can’t cover everything?”  But that’s another story.

 

You can see an excerpt of the event on YouTube.

 

But what about Robert Zaller’s bold charge?  For most people, the image of Pew and Company carting works from the Barnes collection is not in the same mental framework as Nazi soldiers hauling away European art treasures. But for others, the image fits.
illustration by Allan Hunter   
But most of us do not understand the Barnes Foundation like Robert Zaller does.  He knows the Barnes on what you could call “a cellular level.”  Others may be more knowledgeable about the art appreciation and horticulture courses, but he has studied its bones, its essential ideas and philosophy as a reflection of American democracy.  And he is not alone in his accusation of vandalism.  University of Virginia Professor of History and Chairman emeritus of the NAACP Julian Bond echoes Robert Zaller, referring to The Philly-stines as “these vandals” in the documentary The Art of the Steal.
Now you can read Robert Zaller’s ideas in an essay in the Fall issue of the literary journal Boulevard.  The writing is brilliant.   Find yourself a copy of the journal at some Barnes & Nobles or Avril 50 (on Sansom near 34th) in Philadelphia and dig in.  Fair warning, though. With the understanding you’ll gain from the essay, the idea of dismantling what Albert Barnes and John Dewey established will likely be as gut wrenching as ever – but more so.  You might feel like spending the afternoon at the boxing gym.

 

The name of the essay is “Who Speaks for Matisse?: American Philanthropy and the Barnes Foundation.”   You’ll read about the Barnes Foundation, American democratic ideals and the Progressive movement: 
“In a time when many people felt that fine art was a thing for snobs and swells, (Albert) Barnes and (John) Dewey argued, courageously…that it was most of all for those whom Barnes called the ‘toilers,’ their possession and birthright, and the very school of their democracy.”

 

You’ll read about the Foundation’s art collection as a tool for education and empowerment of everyday citizens, protected (so Albert Barnes thought) from those who might want to exploits its treasures for commercial purposes:
If the value of a commodity lies…in its capacity to be bought, sold, or otherwise marketed, then the monetary value of the Albert Barnes collection was fixed at zero.”  (emphasis added) 

 

The program Barnes and Dewey developed was to engage people and have them learn to appreciate art by what is in front of their eyes, instead of resting on knowledge of art history or a canned audiophone script.  It was a simple, honest plan, meant to empower through education.  It is, as Robert Zaller wrote,
 “a quintessentially American ideal. It could have sprung from no other soil but ours, and represented no other faith and aspiration but ours.” 

 

But the Indenture of Trust that was supposed to secure the Foundation as a lasting compact between Albert Barnes and Pennsylvania has so far not prevented political, foundation, and commercial interests from getting their claws into it.  (The lawsuit brought by the Friends to re-open hearings is currently under review by Montgomery County Orphan’s Court Judge Ott.)

 

But here’s the question: are the American ideals Barnes and Dewey wanted the Foundation to fulfill woven into the fabric of the unique Merion experience or can they moved to a replica of it on the Parkway? We asked Robert Zaller and he explained that the Barnes’ vision –its ideals — and its physical embodiment –the Merion complex — are one specific thing, an indivisible whole, period.  In short, the Barnes cannot be itself anywhere else.  In his essay, he wrote that that place is to be “regarded – and protected – as hallowed ground” much as Monticello and Gettysburg. Respect for cultural heritage is supposed to be another important American ideal, right?
And another question:  Would those ideals be plowed under at a Barnes museum on the Parkway?  Yes.  The process has already begun.

 

It’s easy to see it.  For one thing, the motivation for The Move is commerce.  The goal of the decades-long plans of The Philly-stines was to turn the Barnes art collection into an engine for generating tourism dollars for the City of Philadelphia and a feeding trough for the Power Brokers.  (If you have any doubt, see who’s on the Barnes “Corporate Leadership Council”.)   

The Parkway Barnes is not about “more people can see it” but about “more people will spend a lot of money to see it.”  It’s not about education or a unique art experience, but having a goose that lays golden eggs — or so the Philly-stines imagine.   

Problem is, with the massive building on the Parkway and huge salaries of the executives, the price of admission will have to be one of the highest in the country, estimated between $20 and $25 per person.  Not affordable to people of modest means and obviously, the Progressive ideal of access for working people goes right out the window.  This is especially infuriating because even a tiny fraction of the money being sucked into the Parkway Barnes could provide low cost or even free admission to the Merion galleries.  Before Derek Gillman, the budget in Merion was only about $4.5 million –chump change for even a small group of socially-responsible philanthropists.

 

But even hefty admission prices make a minor contribution to the operating budgets of museums, so job number one for the Director and Development staff is pulling in donations.  They will try to pimp out the Barnes art collection in the huge and expensive new building, then promote corporate giving via Sponsorships and “The Circles.”  Barnes funding staff and expensive ads gush about “privilege” and “exclusive access” for donors who pony up enough cash to be admitted to the “Director’s Circle” (starting at $10,000) or better yet, the “Chairman’s Circle” ($25,000 and up).  The copy describing “Sponsorships” shows how this type of fundraising is in another universe from the progressive ideals Albert Barnes wanted to foster.
“Sponsoring a Barnes exhibition, program, or special initiative serves as an effective platform to reach your company’s target audience and to achieve strategic marketing and public relations results.” 

Or, the message on the Corporate Council page: 

“The Corporate Council and Circle members at the Patron level and higher enjoy exclusive entertaining privileges at both the Philadelphia and Merion campuses.”  
That is exactly the kind of thing Albert Barnes absolutely hated with a passion!  And if Merion were managed well and supported by a Board committed to the Barnes ideals, the Philly-stine approach to raising funds would not have a place at the table.

 

But what are true Philly-stines to do?  With a super-sized party house to run on the Parkway, the money’s got to come from somewhere.  So the cultural vandals of Merion become culture pimps on the Parkway, hawking Barnes’ art collection as out-of-this-world eye candy, in the process sucking the soul out of the experience Barnes and Dewey envisioned. 

The vandals would have people believe that this is what Albert Barnes would want.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wednesday , August 26 , 2015

Lifting the Heavy Curtain on the Barnes Foundation Mess: Ethics 101

March 29, 2011

               Samuel C. Stretton, Esquire.   photo by Philip Lustig March 29, 2011

Judge Stanley Ott invited the participating attorneys to Courtroom B at the  Montgomery County Courthouse on August 1 to explain their positions on the Barnes mess. Judge Ott didn’t call it a mess, but he could have.

RalphWellington, the impeccably-groomed heavy from the Philadelphia office of Schnader, Harrison, Segal  & Lewis LLP addressed Judge Ott on behalf of the Barnes Foundation. His message was very simple.  We don’t talk fancy like Mr. Wellington, but here’s the gist of what he said:

 

These guys (meaning Sam Stretton, Esquire, the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, and others) are full of it and besides, they don’t have a right to bring this action to Court. With all due respect to Your Honor, they should be shown to the door.  But since we’re here, it might as well be said that Sam Stretton’s claim that there is new evidence of wrongdoing by former Attorney General Mike Fisher is bunk.  Everybody knew about Mike Fisher’s dealings with Lincoln already.  It was, like, you know, the stuff that goes on.  It was even in the newspaper!  So what’s new?  Nothing.

Geeze, you would think at those Schnader prices some new ideas would come up.

The next fancy suit was Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Barth. Larry’s been on this case like forever. The nice thing about Larry is that you always know where he stands because you can’t help but notice where he sits:  as close as possible to the Barnes Foundation lawyers.  We even spotted him at that posh Four Seasons breakfast for the Philly-stines with the project architects. These guys are really tight!

 

Okay, but what did Larry say?  To tell you the truth, it was really hard to hear him, but what we got out of it was pretty much the same spiel heard umpteen times already.  The Attorney General had no conflict of interest, bleh, bleh, bleh. The Barnes Foundation was in such terrible financial shape  that the collection was in danger of being scattered to the four corners of the earth.  That being the case (so they claimed), it was in the public’s interest for the Barnes Board to grab the Pew zillions with both hands and hit the road.

 

And also remember, we (and the Judge) are just take them at their word  — don’t even think about asking for the evidence about the financial condition of the Barnes Foundation.

 

Evidence, did we mention evidence?  Sam Stretton wanted to give Judge Ott a packet of information that shows a very different picture from the one Larry and Ralph presented in the 2003,  2004 hearings. Well, Larry and Ralph were all over Sam’s case in a flash and he was unable to submit the packet.  More on that in a future post.  But first the Oral Arguments.

Now, Sam.  Sam Stretton is a lawyer’s lawyer and a judge’s lawyer, too.  He’s an authority on Pennsylvania legal and judicial ethics, so he knows a thing or two about what an Attorney General is supposed to do and what is beyond the pale.  If  Sam says that  Mike Fisher’s apparent threatening behavior toward Lincoln University’s Board and then not telling the Court about it was “an absolute conflict of interest,” there is every reason to believe it is. Sam told Judge Ott this was “Ethics 101.”

 

Beyond that kind of obvious problem, Sam asked Judge Ott to consider the fundamental role of the Attorney General in a case like this.  Is the AG supposed to be a supervisor?   Or, is the AG supposed to bring the evidence before the Court so that the Judge can assess it and reach a conclusion? Sam also told Judge Ott that there is ample evidence to show that what was presented in earlier hearings misled the Court.

We are hardly objective observers, but Sam Stretton’s arguments and delivery were electrifying. Barth and Wellington’s were more like two dull thuds.

 

But styles aside, it’s  the substance of what these lawyers said and their written legal arguments submitted to the Court that will carry this forward – or not. You can read about it in more detail in the “Critical Mass” column in Philadelphia’s City Paper by Clare Foranand  in the Main Line Times by Cheryl Allison.