Collection needs city audience

Finances force trustees to defy founder's wishes, desert suburbs

— The cash-strapped Barnes Foundation wants to move its world-renowned collection of Cezannes, Picassos, Renoirs and van Goghs from the suburbs to the city so that it can attract more patrons and shore up its shaky finances.

"If we remain in Lower Merion, we would probably face bankruptcy," Bernard Watson, president of the foundation, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Kimberly Camp, the foundation's executive director, said finances had deteriorated considerably, and potential donors were unwilling to help as long as the foundation stayed in the suburbs. The foundation is projected to run an $800,000 deficit this year and has less than $1 million in cash reserves, officials said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Lenfest Foundation have promised to help the Barnes raise $150 million that would be used to construct a new building in Philadelphia and establish a substantial endowment, Watson said. The assistance is contingent upon court approval of the move because the gallery's founder, Albert Barnes, forbade removal of the paintings after his death.

Foundation lawyers filed a petition Tuesday in Montgomery County Orphans' Court, which has jurisdiction over the will. Pew, Lenfest and The Annenberg Foundation have agreed to give the Barnes $3.1 million over two years to keep it afloat while the petition is considered.

The Barnes is an art-world oddity. It is largely known for its huge collection of impressionists and post-impressionists, but it contains works by other artists as well. There are more than 9,000 pieces, valued from $8 billion to $25 billion, Watson said.

The collection has been handicapped financially by zoning regulations in affluent Lower Merion Township � because of complaining neighbors, the Barnes is limited to only 400 visitors a day, three days a week � and by some of the restrictions in Barnes' will.

Barnes' $10 million endowment � required to be invested in conservative, low-yielding government securities � was exhausted in 1999.

"It is well-known that Dr. Barnes wanted the collection to be seen and studied in the Lower Merion gallery he built for that purpose," Watson said. However, "if the constraints on our institution prevent us from carrying out our mission, then we may be released from these requirements."

Barnes, a scientist who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, established the foundation in 1922 to teach populist methods of appreciating and evaluating art. He died in a 1951 car crash.

The French masterpieces and other paintings have been housed in 23 rooms of a gallery since 1925, along with African carvings, Navajo textiles, Greek and Roman ceramics, and even students' works and knickknacks.

The works are displayed close together and grouped in eclectic ways to encourage a fresh viewing, as Barnes had wanted. The artworks do not bear captions, only the artists' last names, so nothing distracts from the images.

Barnes, who disliked Philadelphia's upper crust, set up the foundation to benefit working-class people. His intricate trust document empowered historically black Lincoln University to nominate four of the foundation's five trustees after longtime Barnes employees and followers died or retired. Blacks appointed by Lincoln have been in the majority since 1989.


AP File Photo

A visitor views some of the paintings in The Barnes Foundation's diverse collection in Merion, Pa. The cash-strapped Barnes Foundation wants to move its world-renowned collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterworks from the suburbs to Philadelphia's museum district.


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