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How Barnes got from there to here

It took a lot of sharp art deals, some nutty ideas, and plenty of simmering enmity.

Today - the day the Barnes Foundation, long of Latchs Lane in Merion, unveils the design for its $200 million gallery on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway - is one that many in the art world will regard as infamous, and many in Philadelphia will applaud.

The incomparable Barnes collection won't be moving from its home of 84 years just yet; the city Art Commission, which oversees Parkway construction, will review the concept this morning and is expected to endorse it, with final approval to follow.

The opening is not scheduled until 2012. But today's action is evidence that the move has overcome all legal and political efforts to block it - not that evidence matters to partisans in the endless squabbling over the fate of a rich patent-medicine maker's aesthetic accretions.

A new documentary film, director Don Argott's The Art of the Steal, lays out the case for move-as-infamy - the tale of how the collection of Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, and other early modernist works has been stolen by its covetous enemies and moved to an urban cultural corridor.

All this was done, says the film, with indifference to the foundation's singularity and contempt for the desires of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, friend of the "plain people" and avowed opponent of what the movie calls "WASPy" local elites (led by Walter Annenberg, once owner of The Inquirer, and Raymond Perelman, former chair of the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

In this view, the Barnes move, a decades-long, slow-motion action adventure, is the result of an immense conspiracy. Yet the forces leading to it are far more human, contradictory, and mundane than any Manichean conspiracy theory would have it. Barnes needed no vast collection of enemies; he had himself.

As even a cursory reading of the many Barnes-related biographies and memoirs makes clear, he was a man who zealously pursued money and its trappings, then contemptuously dismissed the wealthy (excluding himself) as effete butterflies.

He championed African Americans, but tried to block development of lily-white Merion by threatening to remove his paintings and use his buildings instead as residences for black students.

He desperately sought affiliation with area educational and art institutions, particularly his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, he stipulated that Penn - despite the fact that it studiously ignored him for decades - would ultimately control the foundation, a position he did not formally change until shortly before his death. The rest he repeatedly, savagely excoriated, particularly the Philadelphia Museum of Art, calling it the "House of Prostitution of Art and Education on the Parkway."

Fiske Kimball, director of the museum, publicly praised Barnes' aesthetic tome, The Art in Painting, and sought to establish a relationship with the foundation, but was cut off when he sought admission for a few friends. Barnes seized every chance to bash the museum, once cheating it out of a Matisse tryptich - though he denied any double-dealing - and buying it for himself.

He loved to snap up paintings on the cheap, whether he was bamboozling well-stuffed gallery owners or desperately needy artists, many of whom loathed him. Of impoverished painter Chaim Soutine, Barnes once said, "I caught him when he was drunk, sick, and broke and took the contents of his studio for a pittance."

In 1951, a few months before his death at 79 in a car crash, he finally turned his back on Penn and gave Lincoln University, the historically black Chester County college, control over the foundation's board of trustees.

A school affiliation was important to Barnes, who conceived of his foundation as an educational institution, not a museum, a distinction largely maintained by severely limiting visitors beyond the students attending Barnes-designed classes in aesthetics.

(Evidence exists that Lincoln was about to be written out of the foundation as well. "This year the experiment with Lincoln failed in practically all . . . requisites," he ominously wrote just before his demise froze the ever-shifting trust indenture's terms.)

Ultimately, it was Lincoln's control, not greedy city elites, that led to the fateful 1990 decision to install prominent attorney Richard Glanton as foundation president, which launched the series of events leading to the Parkway move.

Glanton, a Lincoln trustee, immediately proposed selling 15 paintings - a violation of the trust indenture's stipulation that nothing in the collection ever be moved or sold - and sought Annenberg's support for the fund-raising ploy.

For his part, Annenberg took advantage of the situation to undercut Barnes' aesthetic discernment: Why not sell off the second-rate Renoirs, he wondered. (Under Annenberg, The Inquirer initiated a lawsuit in 1952 seeking to pry the Barnes' doors open for the public; the court threw it out. Annenberg no doubt was annoyed, but the paper dropped the matter. Deputy state attorney general Lois G. Forer, a zealous advocate of the public interest, eventually reopened litigation and won less restrictive admissions a decade later.)

In 1990, Annenberg clearly saw controversy in Glanton's sale effort and wanted no part of it. After getting in his public licks, he severed all connection with the Barnes.

When the idea, criticized from virtually all quarters, was abandoned, Glanton then proposed an international art road show - a lucrative proposition that violated the trust indenture just as much as the proposed sales would have.

Proceeds of the tour, the Barnes argued, were necessary for a top-to-bottom renovation and installation of adequate climate controls. The rationale satisfied the courts, and off the paintings went.

When they returned, Glanton sought to maximize attendance, and the "plain people," as Barnes had called them, began flocking to Merion. Neighbors were appalled by the buses and crowds. A zoning dispute mutated into suits and countersuits.

By the late 1990s Glanton was out and the foundation was bleeding money. The trust indenture barred most investments; Glanton's litigious excesses took a spectacular toll on the dwindling endowment. The Barnes, then run by Kimberly Camp, cast a wide net seeking solutions.

Beginning in the Glanton era, when financial issues began to press sharply, casual talk of a possible move to Philadelphia had ricocheted around the foundation and was discussed by many interested parties. In early 2001, Perelman, then chair of the art museum, openly speculated about it in the New York Times and The Inquirer, as did former Mayor Ed Rendell - now Pennsylvania's governor - and others.

That political and cultural leaders welcomed the notion of the Barnes in Philadelphia was no secret at all, and three major foundations, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest and Annenberg foundations, ultimately devised a plan to make it happen. Their proposal was announced in September 2002.

Virtually simultaneously, the state legislature authorized use of up to $107 million in capital funds for move-related construction - if the state money ever became available, and if state lawmakers decided to spend any of it.

At the time of the authorization, no Barnes move had been approved by the courts. But then again, no money was appropriated. The authorization/appropriation distinction seems lost on those whose criticism of supposedly secret funding has supplied grist for the conspiracy mill.

Yet it was Barnes himself who set the highly restrictive terms of the trust indenture; who incorporated no penalties for the foundation should trustees violate the indenture's terms; who failed to resolve tension between a supposedly public facility and exclusionary admissions practices; who staffed the board and foundation with apostles to ensure his will in perpetuity.

Instead, for nearly 20 years the Barnes has been the subject of rancorous dispute and litigation, leading to what some would call farce and others, tragedy. No conspiracy has been necessary.