Judge OKs uprooting of Barnes collection

Ruling allows foundation to relocate to Philadelphia despite terms of bequest

December 14, 2004|By Mike Boehm and Diane Haithman | Mike Boehm and Diane Haithman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In a case watched for its possible impact on philanthropy, a Pennsylvania judge ruled yesterday that art intended to stay put - the treasured, highly idiosyncratic but deficit-ridden Barnes Foundation collection - can be uprooted despite the terms of the donor's bequest.

The decision opens the way for the cloistered collection amassed by pharmaceutical tycoon Albert C. Barnes to be moved from suburban Merion, Pa., and housed in a more conventional $100 million showplace in downtown Philadelphia. There, attendance and revenue are expected to soar.

Students who take courses at the Barnes Foundation had tried to stop the move, saying it would dishonor Barnes' wish to create an intimate educational institution - not a conventional museum - built around his collection of Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, Picassos and Rousseaus, among others. The Barnes trove, considered by many experts to be the best private collection in the country, is said to be worth from $6.5 billion to more than $30 billion.

The ruling poses questions for those with large sums to bequeath: If Barnes' trust can be substantially changed, can their wishes also prove to have a life span of less than "in perpetuity"?

"I think that any time there is a decision to break the original donor's intentions, it has a negative effect on philanthropy," said Gene Tempel, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

But the Barnes situation seems unique, said Northwestern University law professor Robert Lind, author of Art and Museum Law. "I don't see it as a harbinger of similar situations arising down the road," he said.

Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, said that although the case gained enormous attention, he doubted that it would have a dampening effect. In 2000, the Getty gave the Barnes Foundation $500,000 to help it plan a solution to its fiscal jam.

For art aesthetes, the worry is that moving the Barnes collection for the sake of making it more accessible - and revenue-enhancing - will destroy the visual and intellectual impact its creator, who died in 1951, had in mind when he specified that the paintings, sculptures and furnishings should remain exactly where he placed them, in unorthodox configurations that, for some expert beholders, reveal an ingenious and visionary understanding of the relationships among works of art.

"The Barnes was an anti-museum because he hated museums," said Christine Steiner, a former Getty Trust general counsel who specializes in art law. "There are no museums quite as quirky and strange."

"It's very sad," said Bruce J. Altshuler, director of New York University's museum studies program. "Museums, as a whole, are becoming less and less different." And museum leaders, he added, are becoming more insistent that gifts not come with many donor restrictions on how art can be displayed.

The Barnes Foundation's trustees had argued in a September hearing that they were going broke in an affluent suburban residential district, where municipal rules aimed at preserving neighborhood tranquillity limit gallery operations. Without transplantation, they said, the Barnes Foundation, which has a $1.2 million annual deficit, according to testimony, would eventually collapse.

Lawyers for the students, who had won friend-of-the-court status, countered that Barnes had less drastic ways of curing its financial woes: It could amass more than $40 million by selling real estate holdings elsewhere, as well as thousands of lesser artworks and a highly valued Courbet painting that's not part of Barnes's carefully choreographed gallery displays.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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