Barnes Foundation may move to Philadelphia

Suburban isolation in Merion, Pa., is causing financial stress

April 15, 2001|By Doreen Carvajal | Doreen Carvajal,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MERION, Pa. - For decades the idiosyncratic Barnes Foundation has dazzled select visitors with an exquisite collection of Cezannes, Renoirs and Matisses displayed in suburban isolation in a limestone Main Line mansion here, about 10 miles from Philadelphia's center.

But behind the scenes, wealthy art patrons are aligning themselves behind a once heretical notion to move the collection into the city if the struggling foundation cannot attract a latter-day Medici to save itself from financial ruin.

The vague outlines of the idea include some sort of relationship with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a new location for the collection, perhaps even transporting the 75-year-old mansion and its graceful Doric columns piece by piece to a site in central Philadelphia. That site is on a parkway that city officials have long yearned to turn into a museum row that could be an economic engine for tourism.

So far the ideas are fodder for private discussions, but when pressed, potential benefactors and donors say the idea could take on more urgency if the Barnes Foundation is unable to raise substantially more money to pay its expenses, which amount to about $3 million a year.

Emergency appeal falters

Since the foundation's emergency appeal last summer to raise a $15 million cushion for operating expenses, it has collected only a little more than $1.5 million in major pledges and donations, a sum that amounts to mere life support.

"It's an idea that a lot of the art museum people are pushing, but I don't think it's reached the serious consideration stage," said Edward G. Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia. "There are potential legal problems there, as well as political problems. It's fraught."

"The new management team at the Barnes is good," he added, "but if it continues to have fiscal problems, then I think this talk will ripen and it will be something that needs to be taken seriously."

The nearly 80-year-old Barnes Foundation has one of the quirkiest identities in the art world. Its personality and philosophy were shaped by its acid-tongued founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a patent-medicine millionaire who bought a 13-acre arboretum outside Philadelphia to create a school and gallery dedicated to the "appreciation of fine arts." He left a will restricting use of the collection, including loans of the paintings, along with a $10 million endowment that is now exhausted.

The foundation's 23-gallery mansion, designed by the French architect Paul Cret, is in a quiet neighborhood of expensive homes where local authorities have capped the weekly number of visitors and students at 1,200, a quota that limits the foundation's revenues and accessibility.

For its part, the Barnes Foundation has politely listened to unsolicited invitations to abandon the suburbs, and the idea is tantalizing, said its director, Kimberly Camp, who noted that relations with local suburban authorities were strained.

"Have we thought about moving?" said Camp, who took charge of the foundation in 1998. "Oh yeah, sure, absolutely. Who wouldn't in this kind of environment? But we can't entertain any questions like that until we assess where we are, what we have and what we're going to do, and that's going to take some time. And we have to stabilize the organization before any of that happens."

Underlying the pressures to transform is the view that wealthy donors and foundations are reluctant to open their wallets and portfolios to an institution whose access is so limited that it cannot pay the bills or impress potential benefactors. As it is, given its secluded location and burdensome 60-day advance reservation requirements, the collection draws only 85 percent of its visitor quota.

Fixed costs high

Moreover, the foundation's fixed costs for utilities and climate control are high, the result of an effort to refurbish the mansion after the foundation obtained court permission to send 80 paintings on tour. The tour raised more than $12 million, but much of the money and the foundation's endowment were whittled away by expenses for construction costs and legal bills.

The talk of alliances with the Philadelphia Museum of Art illustrates how desperate the situation has become, because Barnes scorned it as the "house of artistic and intellectual prostitution." One important benefactor has urged the foundation to expand its five-member board, but such an expansion, which could not happen without a court's permission, could give a stronger voice to donors.

Several Philadelphia Museum trustees, such as Stanley Tuttleman, a prominent philanthropist who lives near the Barnes Foundation, support moving the Barnes building. "I know that they move pyramids, and it can happen here," he said. "They're facing death, so to speak, and if you've got a mortal disease, you'll try anything."

Tuttleman added that several people had approached the foundation with location suggestions.

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