up in Philly I learned that there were two ways of getting things done: on the streets – usually quicker – by
handling it yourself or hiring someone (no names!!) or in the courts – slower, less messy – The Main Line Way. The latter course illustrates what is going on at the Barnes Foundation,
and documented most recently in the documentary The Art of the Steal.
The movie which opened last Friday at
the Landmark E Street Cinema is a riveting account of how disparate groups of characters – politicians, nonprofits,
and the Barnes’ own Board of Directors – worked diligently behind the scenes to engineer the move of the much
heralded Barnes Collection from Montgomery County to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. As a former resident
and enthusiastic supporter of their arts scene, I can tell you it saddens (at times disgusts) me to see the City, State, and
nonprofits coming off looking so badly. For those who agreed to appear on camera, and many did not, the
complete lack of ethical scruples looks almost childlike as they explain to the audience the realities of doing business in
today’s world. It breaks down like this: You bring the product and we’ll supply the venue.
In sports terms, you’re looking at a franchise heist. Philadelphia
wants the Barnes Collection and to pry it out of Merion they’ve offered what amounts to a new stadium, boatloads of
money, and corporate sponsorship. Maybe naming rights are up for grabs, down the road. If
you thought nonprofits were akin to public service, you’re living in the distant past. Trustees are
in essence minority partners; they buy a stake (at the price of a small ransom) with the idea of bringing in others with the
mutually beneficial backroom-business arrangement such cozy proximity spawns. The financial bar is set
quite high, but not too high; as Michael Kaiser points out in his book about remedies for ailing nonprofits, the Art of
the Turnaround, the focus is on the larger donor. In the case of the Barnes, they’ve created
an extra ten places at this stacked table, but for the privilege of remaining in the game they’ve got to observe the
“3 Gs: Give, Get, or Get-off.” When it comes to private versus public interest, the house always
you care about historic preservation or environmental issues you’ll have a sense of what is at stake in the gutting
of this splendid educational facility. To remove the essence of what defined Albert Barnes unique vision
of art appreciation and education and drop it in the center of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is an act of cultural vandalism.
The Barnes Foundation is a threatened historic facility and as such qualifies as a candidate for
America’s 11 Most Endangered Places identified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
all you’ve read and heard about the move, the issue here is tourism, or more specifically tourist dollars.
Access – making the collection available to more people – is a red herring. The prize
is the art; education as such amounts to no more than window dressing. The vested interests are looking
for a big uptick on their investment: more visitors, store purchases, donors, and the tax revenue those increases will bring,
along with a bonanza in grant money. There will be matching and challenge grants galore
as trusts look to bring in as much of the rake as they can without putting up any (or as little as possible) of their own
There will be opportunity costs, in economic terms, with limited money to go
around, especially in these tough economic times, there’s only so much available for charitable giving: small nonprofits
will be the big loser, it’s my bet the philanthropic money will follow the big institutions.
Proponents of the move
are fond of quoting the judge who ruled in favor of the move, who said he did so with a clear conscience. I don’t know
about you, but I don’t want a jurist who is untroubled by matters of this magnitude. I don’t
want one who sleeps well at night; I want one who tosses and turns.
All you Washingtonians out there: I invite
you to conduct the following thought experiment. Imagine that it is James Smithson’s will we are
talking about and it’s the Nineteenth Century. Now Britain ultimately coughed up the dough, but it
didn’t have to, especially given our status as a former rebellious colony. Saner minds prevailed
in those days and we can only hope before this matter rests that the right thing will be done here, if not through the legal
system, then in the ultimate court of appeal, and the most important, that of public opinion.
© John F. Glass
March 29, 2010 – All rights reserved