Barnes Foundation wins ruling to move to city centre

Court dismisses petitions from two organisations hoping to keep the collection in Merion County

NEW YORK. A county court has cleared the way for the Barnes Foundation to move its multi-­billion-dollar collection from its home in suburban Philadelphia to a planned museum in the city centre. On 15 May, Judge Ott dismissed petitions to re-open the case that were submitted by the Friends of the Barnes and the Montgomery County Commis­sioners, which oversees the township of Lower Merion where the Barnes has operated since 1922. He ruled that according to legal precedent neither group has standing to challenge his earlier ruling from 2004 allowing the controversial move.

The Friends denounced the court for failing to protect patent-medicine magnate Dr Albert Barnes’s charter which stipulated that his collection of impressionist, modern, old master, African and decorative art remain as he left it in a purpose-built gallery in Lower Merion. “The Judge has ruled on ‘standing’ [the legal right to initiate a lawsuit], not the merits of the case,” says Nancy Herman, a member of the steering committee of the Friends.

The Friends disagree with the Barnes Foundation’s contention that the move to a more accessible location is necessary to improve the institution’s chronic financial problems. The Friends maintain that less drastic measures would suffice, such as increasing the number of visitors and charging more for admission. They also claim that the Barnes trustees concealed knowledge of $107m in state funding approved in 2002 for the Barnes’s future building. And the Friends say the county’s 2007 proposal to purchase the Barnes’s land and buildings for $50m and lease the property back to the foundation would have provided an income-generating endowment that would have allowed the collection to remain in Merion. The Barnes rejected this proposal.

Judge Ott described the 77-page document submitted by the Friends and the county as a “diatribe, rampant with scattershot accusations, arguments, and conjecture”. The petition failed to show “a substantial, direct, and immediate interest in the outcome of the litigation,” which is the standard established by Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent to justify

legal standing.

He conceded that while the county “may be very interested in the foundation”, charities are within the purview of the Attorney General’s Office. Since the Attorney General did not oppose the Barnes breaking its founding charter, no other entity can do so in a Penn­sylvania court. The judge determined that the Friends and county had filed their petition in good faith and therefore denied the Barnes its request to recuperate legal costs.

Derek Gillman, executive director and president of the Barnes, says the foundation is “forging ahead with plans for the new building”. The Barnes has pledges of $150m from three Philadelphia foundations—Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations—and another $25m from the state to build and endow a new museum in central Philadelphia.

In January the foundation signed a 99-year lease for a city-owned site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Designs for the new facility by Tod Williams & Billie Tsien Architects are being finalised. According to the Barnes, the new gallery “will replicate the scale, proportion and configuration of the existing gallery in Lower Merion” and provide space for education programmes, conservation and research.

The move to an urban location “will enable the Barnes to ensure its long-term viability, while providing greater access to the collection”, the foundation says. But Ms Herman sees the ruling as opening a door that allows Pennsylvania municipalities to seize the assets of private charities. “If the prospect of tourist dollars means more to Philadelphia than protecting its national treasures, we have come a long way from what our founding fathers began here,” she says. It remains to be seen if the Friends and county will mount an appeal.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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