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What the court didn't know

Pennsylvania set aside funds to move the Barnes collection to downtown Philadelphia long before a judge's ruling allowed it.

October 16, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In December 2004, a Pennsylvania court did the unthinkable. It ruled in favor of a controversial petition to relocate the greatest collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings ever assembled by an American art collector from its historic home in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb to a gritty site downtown.

There, as part of an evolving urban redevelopment plan, a powerful coalition representing the city's political, business and cultural establishment hoped to create an international tourist draw. The alluring magnet would be the nearly five dozen paintings by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 69 by Cezanne, seven by Van Gogh, 181 by Renoir and scores more by other household names in art's firmament. All came from the fabled Barnes Foundation.

The court's decision to allow the move set off international howls of dismay. The ruling not only ventured into troubling legal waters but also paved the way for the destruction of a singular monument of 20th century American culture. The Barnes, founded in 1922, had been hailed by no less an eminence than Matisse as "the only sane place" for the display of art he had seen in America.

Now it appears the court decision to abandon "the only sane place" was made without a critical piece of information. What the judge did not know -- in fact, what almost no one seems to have known -- was that long before the court hearing even began, more than $100 million had already been set aside for the scheme.

Who was the mystery benefactor? The state of Pennsylvania.

Two state appropriations for the Barnes Foundation totaling $107 million were made 13 months before Judge Stanley R. Ott raised his gavel to begin final hearings in the Montgomery County Orphans Court. There is no indication that these appropriations were ever mentioned in court, where the deliberation focused like a laser on the Barnes' strained finances -- and on the difficult prospects for fundraising necessary to accomplish the move. Nor did the earmarked money appear in any of the extensive mainstream press coverage generated by the case.

Ott, responding late last month to a letter of inquiry about one of the appropriations, written by a Barnes Foundation neighbor who had discovered it, replied that the query was "to my knowledge, the first I've seen or heard" of it.

A Times review of the appropriations bill turned up the second itemized allotment.

Buried deep inside Pennsylvania's voluminous, multibillion-dollar capital budget for fiscal year 2001-02 was $7 million for "restoration, stabilization and site enhancements for the Barnes Foundation." Amid hundreds of itemized appropriations for airports, roads, flood-control projects, office construction and other public improvements anticipated throughout the state, the Barnes money was hiding in plain sight.

Fifteen pages later, the budget set aside another $100 million for "design and construction of a museum facility" to house the Barnes collection.

Oddly, both items in the 325-page budget came under the heading of Philadelphia projects. Yet the Barnes Foundation's primary home, in Lower Merion Township, and its subsidiary country house, Ker-Feal, are located in nearby counties.

Odder still is the yearlong legislative history of the appropriations bill. When introduced Nov. 16, 2001, it made no mention of the Barnes. When the bill was amended the following June 26, the $7-million appropriation was included. When it was amended again on Oct. 8, the $100-million appropriation had appeared. The state Senate approved the bill the following day, the House two weeks later. The governor signed it on Oct. 30.

The big Oct. 8 appropriation came just 13 days after a coalition of three powerful local philanthropies announced their plan to petition the court to radically alter the donor's wishes.

To allow the move downtown, the court needed to overturn a settled will -- a reversal no court likes to make, given the negative impact such a precedent can have on future benefactors. Albert C. Barnes, a cantankerous but socially progressive pharmaceutical magnate, died in a 1951 car crash at 78 and left his Merion estate as a school dedicated to art appreciation.

But powerful forces had lined up behind the move. The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annenberg Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation made the deal of the century. For their pledge to raise a relatively modest $150 million to finance the move, they would effectively gain control of billions of dollars worth of Modern masterpieces.

Their only requirement was that the collection be moved 10 miles away from its leafy suburb to a spot on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Given the foundations' prominence and influence within the city's cultural life, the local art community was unlikely to object.

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