Back in the 1960s, when he was a young English instructor at Harvard University, Neil L. Rudenstine had the good fortune to visit the Barnes Foundation, a private art enclave then located in suburban Merion.
The Barnes galleries contained one of the greatest collections of early modernist paintings anywhere in the world, but it had an aura of isolation, as though it were an island, if not a lost world.
So it was that Rudenstine felt himself a fortunate man to enter the charmed, leafy grounds and then the galleries themselves.
"What I remember most, besides the pictures of course, was the emptiness of the place," Rudenstine said in a recent interview. "I remember going through the gardens and seeing no one - no cars, no people, no anything. And the rooms, scarcely anybody in them. But I was totally overwhelmed by the art."
Now 77, president emeritus of Harvard University, and current trustee of the very Barnes Foundation he found so striking and empty half a century ago, Rudenstine has written a book about Dr. Albert C. Barnes, collector extraordinaire and creator of the eponymous art institution.
The House of Barnes: The Man, the Collection, the Controversy, published by the American Philosophical Society, comes with far less fanfare than The Art of the Steal, the flamboyant 2009 film about the foundation and its cacophonous move from Merion to Philadelphia, finally completed in May when the Barnes opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The book, unlike the film, posits no vast conspiracy involving Philadelphia sharks bent on consuming cultural fish from the defenseless ponds of Merion. In fact, Rudenstine argues that by moving to Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation simply rescued itself from inevitable financial ruin.
That he is a trustee perhaps makes such an argument unsurprising, if not thoroughly biased.
But Rudenstine says he entered into his research with no agenda at all. Out of the blue, after no Barnes contact for nearly 50 years, he received a phone call in 2004 from Bernard C. Watson, chairman of the Barnes trustees.
Might Rudenstine - who did not know Watson - be interested in joining the Barnes board?
He might. First, however, would come a bit of research to answer the legal and ethical questions raised by the prospects of a move, which received a court OK that same year.
Over the years litigation had flowed and spread from the Barnes like oil from a deepwater well. Much was generated by a nearly two-year effort to persuade Montgomery County Orphans' Court to change the trust indenture governing the foundation and allow it to transport the famed collection to Philadelphia.
According to the indenture, as crafted by Barnes (dead since 1951), not even one painting could be moved off a wall, let alone the entire collection from its only home. Judge Stanley Ott presided over much of the voluminous legal wrangling.
Rudenstine read all the transcripts, plowing back to pre-move litigation.
"I also wanted to see some financial statements to get some sense of the trajectory," he said, referring to the waning solvency of the foundation. "I looked at that point starting in 1980 and later on I was able to find stuff from the '60s. But 1980 seemed early enough and I could see deficits already there. So after doing some of that I concluded that the place was in dire need of help."
An alert governing board would have seen problems by the early 1960s, he said, after the courts compelled the Barnes to admit the general public two days a week: "At that point they had to hire security guards, which of course they never had before, and hiring the security guards alone threw them into deficit. So if you track the finances all the way through, certainly by 1980 it was very clear that half the budget was underwater."
Rudenstine also points out that big foundations, particularly the Pew Charitable Trusts, which backed and partially bankrolled the move from Merion to Philadelphia, were unlikely conspirators. The move plan emerged in 2002, a year or so after Pew (and the Getty Foundation) bestowed about $1 million on the Barnes for long-term planning and collections assessment in Merion.
"That seemed to me a particularly telling thing," Rudenstine said. "I don't think a foundation would be giving quite that much money for planning to stay in Merion in 2001 if they were already thinking about some kind of move."
Rudenstine is, of course, attracted to Albert Barnes as an intellectual and collector. It's the rare aesthete who makes a fortune on patent medicines, shatters his country's aesthetic norms, and demands that universities and museums capitulate to his pedagogy. Barnes' powerful personality dominates the foundation and discussion of it to this day.
"The more he got his theories solidified, the more tenacious he became about thinking that was the only way of looking at art," Rudenstine said. "And so he began to close the place down to people. Only those who had some sympathy to the way he wanted to teach it were admitted. So it became a kind of fortresslike place quite early, I think, largely because of the theories he developed, and partly because . . . most people had some sense of art history and styles and so forth - and of course he wasn't really interested in that."