Thursday, December 22, 2011

Take the art and run

Article first published as Public Vandals on Technorati.

Vandalism is a very common word and--when used--the meaning is crystal clear: the wanton destruction or defacement of property, private or public. And vandalism has been a problem for people, as long as there has been a concept of property. But the term, itself, dates from Roman times and references the Vandals, a Germanic tribe that invaded the Empire and--in 455--sacked Rome, itself. There is some question as to how extensive the "vandalism" of the Vandals really was, but the term has entered the common lexicon, for better or worse. Regardless, there is no question that extensive plundering occurred, as the Vandals made off with a great deal of riches.

Today, large stashes of riches in states, nations, cities, and homes are not so easily plundered in such a manner, as they often exist in theoretical form, in banks and investments. However, there are places that do hold unparalleled riches, still. Chief among these--aside from the Fort Knoxes of the world--are art museums, with some paintings being valued at over one hundred million dollars. Thus, the total value of art at some museums can easily exceed billions of dollars. Of course, it's very difficult to steal such artwork; it's very tightly guarded and near-impossible to sell, if stolen. The occasional museum theft is big news.

But what about stealing an entire museum, an entire collection of valuable art, assembled over a lifetime? That would seem to be beyond impossible. Yet, in a saga that goes back decades, it may actually be happening, may already be a done deal. The collection in question is that of the Barnes Foundation, a heretofore private collection amassed by Albert C. Barnes in the early twentieth century and housed in Lower Merion, outside of Philadelphia.

Not simply a museum, the Barnes Foundation was designed to be a school for artists. The collection, itself, was never intended to leave the building, to be sold, loaned, or the like. The French artist Henri Matisse visited the school and called the Barnes (the shorthand name for the school and collection) "the only sane place to view art  in America." Currently, the collection is valued at more than twenty five billion dollars.

Barnes passed away in 1951, but left a detailed will that specified the disposition of the school and the collection. His wife controlled them until her death in 1966. From there, since Barnes had no children, control of the school and collection passed to Lincoln University, via Barnes giving it the authority in his will to name four of the five board members of the foundation.

What follows from here is a tale of manipulation, as various groups and individuals squabbled over the control of the collection. But one thing is crystal clear: Barnes very much wanted--and indeed, ordained--that the school and collection remain in Lower Merion, that the unique character of the Barnes would endure. He was very cognizant of the ways in which private collections could become public ones and had no desire to see this happen to his own.

Of course, money must be a consideration. Barnes' endowment fund--quite large at the time--was not sufficient to provide for all needs for all times, with regard to the physical plant and the administration of the foundation. And given that he has no descendants, it might be something of a fanciful wish that his possessions should remain eternally out of the reach of all others.

That said, the state has in interest in seeing that properly made contracts--like wills--are enforced, as a matter of course. Yet, the collection is now set to be moved to the city of Philadelphia--against Barnes' wishes--and is controlled by a fifteen member board, effectively taking control out of the hands of Lincoln University, also against Barnes' wishes. In fact, control is now largely in the hands of several charitable trusts, including the massive NGO, the Pew Charitable Trusts, headquartered in Philadelphia, proper. The story of how all of this came to pass is told in a feature-length 2009 documentary film entitled The Art of the Steal.

Admittedly, the film paints a very one sided picture of the events, yet there seems little doubt that what has come to pass contradicts the explicit wishes and designs of Albert Barnes. The collection is poised to become another public museum, with more access than ever before, yet ultimately serving the needs of the city of Philadelphia, most directly. One cannot help but wonder if this same scenario could be replayed again, perhaps robbing Philadelphia of its new artistic jewel in the service of some other city. Whose art is it, after all?

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