The Round House Theatre's
latest offering (to 2/21) Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons is a provocative play about race in general and
museums and society vis à vis the African American experience in particular. Based "loosely"
[sic] on the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA (next door to West Philadelphia), the play depicts the explosive 1990s when a
newly appointed black director with a unique vision attempts to take the Barnes into the coming century. While any author
is by definition granted artistic license in exploring his or her themes, there are so many liberties taken with the historical
basis of this play - from the portrayal of the Barnes Foundation, their neighbors, concerned friends of the foundation, and
the art establishment - I think the audience should be enlightened, if not set straight.
I was born in Philadelphia and I have visited the Barnes on several occasions. I also saw the traveling show in DC in
1993. So I am more than familiar with the "back story" to this saga and it's informed rather than clouded
my view of the play.
Short Summary: The Barnes is an educational foundation not a museum. It was set
up by Albert Barnes, M.D., for the purpose of advancing his educational philosophy of art, namely that to be appreciated
and understood, art must be studied seriously, even leisurely, i.e., with the works given more than the 16-25 seconds typically
allotted by patrons. The Foundation was intended to educate disadvantaged or average citizens, not the elite or the
Philadelphia art establishment who mocked Barnes's collection from the 1920s onward. Dr. Barnes didn't miss
a moment to reciprocate and as a display of his heightened democratic spirit and as a sign of contempt, he appointed Lincoln
University, a historically black college (HBC) as the trustee, controlling 4 of its 5 seats.
Starting with his death
in 1951, throughout the years, there has been a number of battles to increase access to the collection. Ultimately,
it shook out to 2-3 days a week, from 9-5 PM, by appointment to limit the number of visitors to several hundred per day.
This always seemed reasonable to me - try walking up to the Kreeger Museum during the weekday - but this rankled many.
And the location was a little off the beaten path, but easily accessible for anyone with any initiative - say an art lover.
In the 1990s The Barnes began to experience many of the administrative problems that plague educational institutions
today: their endowment was shrinking; operating expenses were rising; and their cash flow was limited to admissions,
sales, and licensing fees. The new director (and president of the board of trustees) proposed selling off part of the
collection (15 paintings) to raise funds, extend hours, charge more, and build a parking lot to accommodate visitors.
He also wanted to send about 90 paintings on tour. All of these moves were in express violation of Barnes' will.
This situation did not sit well with the community or the friends of the Barnes. Now I'd be the last person to
say that race did not play a part in these reactions, but it wasn't a major one, and there were so many other factors
that it was almost inconsequential. The building sits in a residential neighborhood and since it is an educational institution,
it had to comply with local zoning laws. The expansion of operations - from the number of days to the hours opened -
increased traffic to the distress of many locals.
Deaccessioning (selling off) paintings from any institution is a
public relations nightmare - witness the outcry over Brandeis, Fisk, and Thomas Jefferson Universities' proposals - to
cite some recent examples. The sense of betrayal is palpable to the public (who these institutions represent) and the
donors who make these tax-exempt organizations possible. According to ethical guidelines established by national organizations
representing institutions of this nature, you don't sell paintings to pay bills, only to replace them with other works,
which Barnes' will, in this case, expressly forbids.
The trustees were incompetent, the endowment shriveled away
under their watch, and they exercised poor judgment both in selecting the director and handling the resulting legal fiasco.
Probably Dr. Barnes dropped the ball on this one, but he could never have envisioned bastions of higher education, let alone
a distinguished HBC of Lincoln's stature, being run as businesses, while promoting their own interests ("spending
irregularities" were discovered in an investigation). The old boys' (or girls') network knows no color
line as this sorry tale demonstrates.
Concerned advocates for the Barnes - inside and outside the foundation - are
portrayed as Tea Party cranks in the play. In real life, nothing could be further from the truth: just about everything
they direly forecast has come to pass. Paintings were damaged in transit and education was minimized (including horticulture,
part of the foundation's mission and lovingly displayed on the grounds) in favor of greater access. The foundation
was operated as a de facto museum, greatly increasing traffic to the annoyance and detriment of the neighborhood,
and the trustees' mismanagement ran the institution into the ground. Their protracted lawsuits did not help.
Though the advocates won in court, forcing the Barnes to remit their legal fees, only the lawyers and the vested interests
walked away as victors. (In real life, the new director gladly accepted the ¾ million dollar check they offered.)
The institution was forced to turn to various trusts and foundations to keep the doors open, all of which came with
a big string attached.
The law or at least the mood of the land lies in the realm of
eminent domain. If a government or business or a non-profit trust can demonstrate in the courts that the public interest
outweighs the rights of an individual, then a will can be broken, property seized, and rights dismissed out of hand.
This seems to be what's playing out in Philly, where the Barnes is headed for a choice central location - an anchor for
tourism - right next to Barnes's old nemesis, The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
As in most debacles, there
are many culprits - see all of the above - including others that jumped into the lurch, from elected officials, the media,
and charitable trusts, but far, far down on the list is race. Check out the upcoming documentary about the Barnes entitled
The Art of the Steal. For a thoughtful biography of the man and his times, see The Devil and Doctor Barnes
by Howard Greenfield (Penguin/Viking Press: New York, 1987). To bring the story up to date see Art Held Hostage:
The Battle over the Barnes Collection by John Anderson (W.W. Norton, 2003). The complex legal situation is described
in great and compelling detail by Nadine Sergejeff in "The Crisis at the Barnes Foundation: A Case Study of Trustee Negligence"
(Master's Thesis, Seton Hall University, 2001); the URL is too long, just Google it to read it on the web.
a side note, the Permanent Collection advances the thesis that black art is held in low regard by the white public
and museum administrators. Setting aside Dr. Barnes very positive views and those of the artists he collected, who "borrowed"
much of their work from African art, is this true today? If you've ever tried to purchase African or black art -
for a museum or yourself - you may find there's a lot of competition out there for this coveted and widely recognized
artistic commodity. Bring a big checkbook! Dr. Barnes may have overplayed his hand with the power brokers of the
establishment, but when it came to art, he continues to be way ahead of his time.
There's still time to see the
Barnes Collection in its natural setting and if you're an art lover, I would urge you to do so before this set, for all
intents and purposes, goes dark (www.barnesfoundation.org). It's now $15 a ticket and the same amount to park your car. There won't be any labels to facilitate
your viewing (at least there weren't the last time I was there) and the arrangement is unusual - paintings are organized
by composition or theme - and 17th century paintings "talk" with their followers in the 20th
century and vice versa. And there are latches (hence the street address 300 N. Latches Lane), keys, keyholes, and tools
everywhere to complement the geometry of the works.
The take home message here: If you're considering
a bequest to a non-profit, make it with your eyes wide open. There's no such thing as an iron-clad will or trust
these days. Expediency and the greater public good hold sway over your best intentions.
© February 17,
2010 by John F. Glass. All rights reserved.