Dr. Albert Barnes had one last wish.
He wanted his collection of modern art to remain in his home, a lush, 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pa. Now, nearly 60 years after his death, the collection known as the Barnes Foundation is moving – and downsizing – to a 4.5-acre plot near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The struggle to keep the collection, which boasts 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne and others by Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, has made its way into the political spectrum.
John Morganelli, the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Pennsylvania, is making the fight to keep the Barnes at its original home a platform of his campaign.
“The attorney general has responsibilities under the law relative to charitable trusts,” Morganelli said. “I do believe very strongly that wealthy individuals make provisions in their wills and trusts that benefit the community and we ought to do our best to honor that.”
Morganelli said that he is not looking to target any specific voting demographic by making this effort a part of his agenda.
“The attorney general has a lot of various responsibilities, including drug enforcement and violent crime,” he said. “But the Barnes Foundation was at the center of [the charitable trusts] issue, so I thought I had to make my position known on it.”
The collection isn’t being moved because of someone’s whims, though: the foundation suffers from a serious lack of money. Endowments fund most institutions, but the Barnes hasn’t been able to find one, unless it concedes to one thing.
“We tried for years to get one here,” said Andrew Stewart, marketing and media relations director at the foundation. “But no one was willing, unless they agreed to move it.”
Stewart said he also thinks the move will make it more accessible and attract a larger number of guests.
The case went to court in 2004. A judge ruled that the foundation could use an $11 million grant to relocate to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where it would sit between the Rodin Museum and the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Barnes Foundation board members and the judge thought it was the last chance to save the collection without going bankrupt. Morganelli, on the other hand, doesn’t think they’ve exhausted their options.
“The judge was left without recourse. He only had one side of evidence and therefore his hands were tied, and he had to allow the expansion,” Morganelli said.
Stewart said the issue doesn’t need to be politicized. For those working at the Barnes Foundation, the move is set in stone.
“The focus of the Barnes Foundation is that it’s an educational institution. The mission is to teach art and horticulture,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t need to be involved in politics.”
Business leaders and politicians aren’t the only ones who can’t agree on the topic – patrons are just as undecided about the move.
“It used to be almost impossible to get here,” visitor Esther Eavenson said. “I think [the move] is a good idea. It will be more accessible.”
Eavenson’s friend, Margie Richards, visited the Barnes for the first time last month. She understands the reasons behind the move, but likes the setting in Merion better.
When the art is moved, the only remnants of the Barnes left in Merion will be an outdoor arboretum and horticulture classes. The new site will also rest on a much smaller plot of land.
“It will still be the Barnes Foundation and there will be at least a nod to where the Barnes Foundation used to be,” Stewart said.
Groups such as Friends of the Barnes Foundation are still lobbying against the move, and Morganelli said they have substantial support.
If he becomes attorney general, Morganelli would like the case reopened so that a judge can make a decision based on “more balanced evidence.” He said certain proposals were overlooked, including one by Montgomery County commissioners to offer $150 million to keep the Barnes in its current location.
“It’s a benefit to move it to Philadelphia, but some of the character gets lost in my view,” Morganelli said. “I do believe that moving it to Philadelphia should have been a last resort, and now it isn’t.”
Morgan Zalot can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.