A Pennsylvania court decided this week to allow the incomparable Barnes Foundation and its staggering collection of Postimpressionist, early Modern and other art to relocate to downtown Philadelphia from suburban Lower Merion Township. The news is disappointing but not surprising. It represents the backward thinking that typically attends America's art life.
The ruling echoes the established local power bloc of big philanthropies, politicians, businessmen and the press who joined together to engineer the move, all in an effort to jump-start sagging urban redevelopment and tourism. It is built on a belief, proudly declared by all, that what is good for the city is good for culture.
In reality, the reverse is true. What is good for culture is good for the city. And one particular person knew that better than just about anyone in town: Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951).
A rags-to-riches street kid, Barnes made a fortune in pharmaceuticals. He turned his pile of greenbacks into what Matisse called "the only sane place" for the display of art he had seen in America.
Barnes understood that claims of civic righteousness were just pandering bromides, useful for social climbing while maintaining the status quo. He put his faith in art.
This distinction was the basis for his engagement of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey in crafting a curriculum for his foundation's school, with its then-radical teaching collection composed of masterpieces by Cezanne, Seurat, Picasso and Matisse. It was the source of his legendary antagonism toward the downtown establishment and its routine pomposity and power lust. It spurred his decision to locate the school in outlying Merion, far from the commonplace corruptions of City Hall.
Philadelphians still do not understand this fundamental relationship between culture and civil society. That does not bode well for the future of the Barnes collection, now that its fate appears sealed.
Over the years the now financially strapped Barnes Foundation most certainly had its share of problems -- self-inflicted and otherwise. Readers of "Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection," John Anderson's indispensable history of the chaotic troubles that engulfed the institution in the 1990s, know the litany. But they wither next to the civic craving to demolish one of the premier American cultural monuments of the 20th century, which led to this week's ruling.
In the absence of a satisfactory financial rescue plan, the judge in the case didn't have much choice. But when the inevitable court decision was handed down, Anderson made the precise analogy. The Barnes Foundation will be the Penn Station of our generation.
In 1962, as the old pomp and circumstance of train travel gave way to the efficiency and speed of airplanes, the Beaux-Arts grandeur of Charles McKim's 1910 Pennsylvania Station in lower Midtown Manhattan fell beneath the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a crummy commercial transit hub and sports arena. What was good for the city of New York would be good for culture.
As with Penn Station four decades ago, so with the Barnes Foundation today. Fifteen or 20 years down the road, people will look back on what was lost and scratch their heads: What could Philadelphia have been thinking?
The local establishment (plus their out-of-town friends at the J. Paul Getty Trust) could have saved the Barnes Foundation for a fraction of what it now will spend -- in tax-subsidized dollars, no less -- to dismantle it. An endowment of $50 million, coupled with a court-mandated overhaul of a grossly dysfunctional management structure, would have righted the listing ship.
But no. A minimum of $150 million has instead been pledged toward the demolition and relocation to a spot (now occupied by a youth prison) on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In a deal that would warm the cockles of even the most heartless corporate raider, an art collection worth billions has been snagged for just pennies on the dollar.
Here is the looniest part of the decision: All parties have committed to re-creating the exact interiors of the Merion gallery in a bigger new building downtown, right down to the doorjambs, chair railings and burlap wall-coverings.
In the famously eccentric installation of the Barnes collection, folk art furniture is paired with Old Masters, Modernist paintings hang beside hand-forged iron door hinges and masterpieces are poised up near the ceiling and cannot be lowered. The existing floor plan and wall displays will be duplicated as an incredible simulation.
It is difficult to imagine anything dumber -- and besides, Las Vegas does it better. But the good burghers of Philadelphia are thrilled. Why should this sham be any different from the record of Barnes bloopers, blunders and stupidities racked up to date?
The Barnes Foundation is not important for the curriculum the school offers. It is important because of the enchanted stature of the Merion complex as a unique cultural monument. Once that's demolished, it cannot be willed back into being in a simulacrum on the parkway. All that will be left are the glorious art objects, so a traditional art museum might as well be built.
Of course, I wouldn't hold my breath for that. When you're committed to building for the good of the city, rather than for the good of culture, you are bound to make a mess of it.
Have you been to Penn Station lately?
Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic.