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COUNTERPOINT

We're helping, but not buying

October 26, 2003|Barry Munitz

Two weeks ago, Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote an open letter to Barry Munitz, president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, suggesting that the trust buy the Barnes Foundation and maintain it where it is outside Philadelphia. Knight argued that a plan to move a redesigned Barnes downtown would destroy a "national cultural asset."

Here is Munitz's reply:

The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., is a unique treasure with one of the finest private collections of art in this country. The Getty passionately shares Christopher Knight's commitment to the history and collection at the Barnes, and particularly to its unique educational orientation. We have demonstrated this concern with an early infusion of funds and professional expertise at their most pressured financial moment.

In September 2000, we provided a leadership grant of $500,000 that enabled the foundation to conduct crucial strategic planning while continuing its basic operations. At the same time that we provided this economic leverage, we also dedicated expert staff members from the Getty to the Barnes to offer guidance in library and art collection management, conservation, security, facilities and environmental controls. We placed a particular focus upon the treasure-trove of archival documents held at the Barnes to increase its usability in Philadelphia, and widen its access to readers in Los Angeles and throughout the world. A consistent conversation was established between our institutions that coordinated this flow of funding and expertise.

Significantly, the Getty grant also gave confidence to other major funders to step forward and thereby created a vital transition network of supporters for the Barnes. Among them was the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia, which came forward in early 2001 with a $500,000 grant administered through the Getty. This allowed the Barnes to hire a full-time professional staff and to establish an art historical advisory committee that would look after its spectacular collection. As a result, they have been able to undertake an inventory and conservation survey and to make significant progress toward a comprehensive catalog.

Throughout this period, Getty experts have continued to advise the Barnes, and staff from Pennsylvania have traveled to the Getty Center on numerous occasions to work with professionals in our museum, the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute and at the Getty Conservation Institute. We remain firmly convinced that this overall strategy -- to provide support by blending our technical expertise with our philanthropic capacity -- has accomplished great progress. Most important of all, the Barnes foundation's leadership has seized the opportunity provided by these grants and used it to analyze carefully its prospects for the future and to craft an essential long-term plan.

The Getty's first response to the Barnes was specifically designed to ensure the health of the collection, to preserve the integrity of its rare educational perspective and to address the most pressing issues of continued maintenance and operation. We explored many possible strategies for assistance, but "buying the Barnes" was never one of the options -- simply because the Barnes Foundation is not for sale, and we have never presumed that it ever would be. Therefore our focus has always remained on how to help the Barnes get back on its feet, not to take it over.

Following our early incentives and investment in the Barnes, public and private organizations in Philadelphia have come forward with an option to save this precious foundation, to protect its artistic assets, to preserve its scholastic ethos and to dramatically increase its public engagement. The Getty shares the Barnes Foundation's commitment to maintain the integrity of their collection while honoring the educational vision of Dr. Albert Barnes and the special efforts of his pragmatic advisor, the great 20th century philosopher John Dewey.

We were flattered to have Knight refer to us as "the biggest cultural powerhouse" in the U.S. and suggest that we be part of a plan that would preserve and protect the Barnes' precious assets. We believe that is precisely what we have accomplished.

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