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Getty Trust: Buy the Barnes

The rescue wouldn't cost much, and a national cultural asset would remain intact.

October 12, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

To: Barry Munitz, president and CEO, J. Paul Getty Trust

From: Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times art critic

Re: The Barnes Foundation

I know it's unusual to be writing you this letter, but a bad cultural situation lately has gotten worse. Now, a disastrous crisis looms. Maybe you can help.

No doubt you are aware of the seemingly intractable woes that lately have befallen the Barnes Foundation, the unique shrine to American pragmatist philosophy in a wealthy suburb 10 miles outside Philadelphia. The school was created around arguably the finest collection of Modern art ever assembled by one individual in our nation's history. The several hundred paintings by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Matisse and Renoir are its most famous assets, but there also are fine European Old Masters, African sculptures, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, pre-Columbian objects and more.

Awhile back, after years of mismanagement, the prospect of bankruptcy loomed. The Getty generously pitched in $500,000 (and some management expertise) to help keep the Barnes afloat -- and to buy some time. Maybe locals would figure out a way to save the place. Pennsylvania is a rich state, and in the decades after the country's founding, Philadelphia even was the art capital of the United States.

Well, it didn't happen. Management was indeed professionalized, but money was not forthcoming. Instead, vultures began to circle the wounded prey.

So here's why I'm writing. I have a rescue plan to propose. One that would ensure that an irreplaceable national treasure would remain intact. The Getty should buy the Barnes Foundation and maintain it as it is.

Without such a rescue, its days are numbered. Over the last year or so a coalition of local businessmen, politicians and wealthy charities has launched a scheme to dismantle the Barnes Foundation.

In hopes of aiding Philadelphia's ailing economy, they want to turn the suburban school into an art museum, to be built in a downtown tourist district after a flashy international competition for an architect. (Yes, the Bilbao Effect.) They know that the general public loves the Impressionists, Picasso and Matisse and that the art is worth billions. So their plan is to remove the staggering collection from the suburban school where the late collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, and his trenchant educational advisor, the premier American philosopher John Dewey, carefully installed it early in the 20th century.

This so-called rescue plan actually is a business plan. A national cultural asset is dumped for an urban redevelopment project.

Here's an analogy: You could take the amazing prehistoric paintings out of the remote caves of Altamira, Spain, move them to a shiny new museum in a depressed Barcelona neighborhood, and I'm sure the tourists would come in droves. The paintings would be more accessible to the general public. Starbucks would open up in the neighborhood. Conventioneers playing hooky from some turgid Power Point demonstration back at the hotel would have something cool to do. But the singular, unforgettable experience of seeing art where it belongs would be forever lost.

Ditto the Barnes. The operation might be a success, but the patient will have died.

Money-wise, a rescue wouldn't cost the Getty much. Do the math. To dismantle the place, more than a quarter-billion dollars in cash, pledges and public promises have been bandied about. But just $50 million of that is targeted for an endowment to run the new museum. The annual operating cost is less than $4 million, so a $50-million endowment would easily take care of that.

Imagine: That's actually a little less than the Getty has offered to Britain's Duke of Northumberland to buy his lovely Raphael painting, "Madonna of the Pinks." For the price of that one tiny jewel from the Italian Renaissance, you could secure all the masterpieces in the 2,000-work Barnes Foundation!

True, you wouldn't be moving the Barnes collection to Brentwood. (You might not be getting the Raphael out of England, either -- though I hope you do.) And I'm not exactly sure, legalistically speaking, what it would look like for a charitable trust in one state to acquire one in another state. "Buy" might not be the right term. But the folks who want to dismantle the Barnes have threatened that, if their business plan falls through, the foundation will enter the uncharted waters of Bankruptcy Court, where almost anything seems possible. So surely there's a way.

Maybe, because the Barnes is not an art museum but a school, it should operate as a program of the Getty Research Institute. The Barnes also owns a huge treasure-trove of documents about the cultural life of the period, when pragmatism emerged as the most influential American idea between the Civil War and the Cold War.

How to make it work

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