The remains of an epic custody
battle are being viewed in the City of Brotherly Love and the visiting team has gone down to defeat. At stake was the
art collection of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA. The victors seemingly are the City represented by big (huge) corporate
interests, private trusts, and elected officials who have successfully relocated the collection to Downtown Philly as an anchor
for tourism. The losers are the Friends of the Barnes, arts lovers, concerned citizens, and taxpayers. Yesterday Washington Post "cultural critic," Philip Kennicott wrote about the release of a new documentary The
Art of the Steal which summarizes these events. But, it turns out that the winners don't like the way they are being portrayed.
Could it be they have guilty consciences?
You would think that a review of a documentary (or any other kind of a)
movie by a major newspaper would extend coverage to both sides of the issue. No so with The Washington Post. In Mr.
Kennicott's account, we are offered a decidedly distorted view of what has taken place over the Barnes debacle.
Who does the Post writer choose to feature throughout the interview process? Rebecca Rimel, Chairman and CEO of the Pew
Charitable Trusts, a person who has not seen and is adamantly opposed to the film under discussion (she wouldn't submit
to an interview), which has garnered accolades at the Toronto Film Festival and is having a nice run at the moment in Philadelphia
and elsewhere, coast to coast.
So what is the film about or why should you care? It's about will busting
and de facto law of eminent domain in the today's world. Your rights, your freedoms are at stake. Try as
you might, if you've been judicious in your selection of land, property, and especially art in your lifetime, your heirs,
whether they be family or future generations, will be excluded in the interests of the greater good of the present public.
Does this seem fair? Shouldn't you be allowed to say who enters your house and what they leave with?
In the case of Albert Barnes, his museum was conceived as an educational facility, plain and simple. And the building
and grounds were conceived of an entire unit to house them. Dr. Barnes was mocked, vilified, and scorned by the Philadelphia
establishment during his life because of his views on art. He didn't have it in for them; rather they had it in
for him. He even approached his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to take over as trustees before he went
to Lincoln University. Lincoln didn't enter the picture late as Mr. Kennicott maintains, rather they were there
all along. There are so many misstatements and digressions in his article one wonders where exactly he is coming from:
Kirby Dick and Werner Herzog - are we really talking about things of substance or the writer's hobby horses? Documentaries
are all about particular points of view; that's why they get made.
Much has been said about accessibility
and the supposed lack of it in Merion. Well, the museum is about as far from Downtown Philly as Silver Spring is from
Downtown DC, and sits right on the border across from City Line Avenue. When it shifts to its new location, I can guarantee
that it will be much less accessible for the lovers of the collection. Every time an organization "takes it to
the next level," the fans suffer a loss of access, whether it is structural or emotional. I've seen it before
in moves of theaters, stadia, arts venues, and more. Viewers will be placed at a greater distance; marketing forces
will favor big donors; middlemen and women will intervene between the patron and the art; and the experience, the aesthetic,
will be diluted and homogenized.
The issue in Philadelphia is a simple one. After the Barnes's
trust was run into the ground by the (then) Barnes Director Richard Glanton together with Lincoln University trustees (who
have had voting rights all along), The Pew and others offered to bail them out, with the intention of moving the Barnes to
Downtown Philly. They were not disinterested bystanders. They had an agenda with every cent they offered.
It's not a David and Goliath story; rather it is one of theft: Thou Shalt Not Steal! Barnes' collection was
his alone to leave in accordance with his educational vision. If you can't abide by his decision, you should go
But don't just take my word on it. Read the journalistic account
of this sordid affair reported by both the art and music critics, Edward Sozanski and Peter Dobrin of The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday. If you're still not convinced, take a look at Robert Zaller's article which discusses the financial implications
of saddling the City with an enormously expensive museum while detailing the many legal and financial steps taken by the local
county to keep the Barnes in Merion, PA (rezoning to allow up to 150,000 visitors per year, a 50 million dollar bond-leaseback
available immediately). But if you want a taste of the corporate party line, there's the sole holdout, Bernard C.
Watson, Chairman and CEO of the Barnes Foundation. He cloaks his arguments in those of the court and if you can believe
that Dr. Barnes anticipated a move to Philadelphia and was eager to have the collection exposed to a greater number of people,
you might buy his reasoning. I don't; it's reductio ad absurdum. Leaving aside the fact that
the legal system favors eminent domain in almost all instances, this case is overseen by The Orphan's Court. What
level of jurisprudence do you think resides there? Also, whose side do you think had more resources to win the legal
battle of attrition? Mr. Watson finds the film advocates a "grand conspiracy theory," in fact, a long-range
strategy of the movers and shakers to relocate the collection would be more descriptive of what transpired. These trust-busters
weren't offering a dime if the museum stayed put.
Mr. Kennicott is reluctant to challenge his main
source at any time in the article (she wouldn't provide her e-mails with the filmmaker). It's interesting to
note that The Pew changed from a foundation to a non-profit in 2004, allowing them to raise funds and allot up to five percent
of their budget to lobby the public sector, which explains their presence in DC. This permitted them to freely pursue
their agenda of moving the Barnes and gain the type of favorable press coverage displayed in The Post's article.
The Pew essentially supports documentaries about maintaining the status quo. Now when an upstart operation, begins to
operate in their vested domain (without their support), they take umbrage.
What this film is doing is a public
service. If Mr. Kennicott thinks there is a fascinating test case about The Pew or other public organizations whose
reach and influence exceeds their grasp - perhaps he might turn attention to his own newspaper - say the 50 most popular
articles (you choose!) and subject them to a rigorous analysis.
I'm looking forward to seeing the
film when it opens here the Friday after next. Maybe I'll like it and maybe I won't. But all the publicity
that's being given should bring the transparency Ms. Rimel desires, but also the crowds who have not yet seen the film.
Be careful for what you ask for - and hey, maybe I'll run into Phil!
© March 8, 2010 by John
F. Glass ... All rights reserved