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Salvation or desecration?

On May 19, a stone's throw from "the House of Prostitution of Art and Education on the Parkway," otherwise known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation gallery will open officially for the first time outside the leafy confines of Latchs Lane in Merion.

It was Albert C. Barnes, the patent-medicine king and collector of incomparable early modernist works, who slapped the "aesthetic whorehouse" tag on the museum.

He didn't like the fact that former museum director Fiske Kimball wanted to invite friends to see the doctor's extraordinary trove of Renoirs, Matisses, Cezannes, Picassos, van Goghs, Modiglianis, Soutines and other masterpieces on Latchs Lane. Kimball was just another art pimp, in Barnes' view. Entrance denied.

Bursts of foul temper, eruptions of ego, defensive, contemptuous, and manipulative behavior - all came easily to Barnes. So did a passionate dedication to emerging modernist art, intellectual rigor, and a profound belief in his own aesthetic pedagogy.

He established the Barnes Foundation in Merion in 1922 as a repository for his paintings and as a center for classes in art appreciation, all codified in a legal document known as a trust indenture.

That document, amended numerous times during Barnes' quarrelsome lifetime, has served as both operational template and road map to disaster for the foundation ever since Barnes' death in 1951. The indenture's detailed strictures have served ever since as a convenient touchstone for Barnes disciples and as a ruinous planning document for the foundation.

There has rarely been middle ground.

Now, one set of latter-day Barnes proponents characterizes the foundation's move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the desecration of Barnes' intentions and the destruction of an incomparable jewel - the Paul Cret-designed gallery in Merion - while another set applauds the move as salvation for the financially rickety foundation and fulfillment of Barnes' professed desire to bring his art to the world's "plain people."

Director Don Argott's 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal laid out one narrative of move-as-destruction, spinning a tale of the theft of the Barnes by Philadelphia's covetous political and economic classes. Spying a financially crippled Barnes, the grasping rich and their political lackeys engorged themselves, making the Barnes a tidbit for tourists.

This view, which posits a decades-long anti-Barnes conspiracy (led by what the filmmaker calls Philadelphia's "WASPy" elites, embodied by the likes of Walter Annenberg, once owner of The Inquirer), simplifies something far more human, contradictory, and bizarre than mere conspiracy: Barnes needed no vast collection of enemies. He had himself - and his disciples.

Barnes viewed his foundation as an educational organization, not a museum, and for years sought to link it to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, he originally stipulated in the trust indenture that Penn, which had ignored his overtures, should ultimately control the foundation.

In 1951, a few months before he ran a stop sign and was killed in a crash at 79, Barnes finally wrote Penn out and gave Lincoln University, the historically black Chester County college, eventual control over nominations to the Barnes board of trustees.

With his death, however, immediate control passed to the Barnes-appointed board, which included his wife, Laura, and his protege, collaborator, and close companion Violette de Mazia.

It is fair to say that de Mazia and Laura Barnes did not get along, eventually staking out separate fiefdoms in Merion. Laura Barnes oversaw the foundation's horticulture programs; de Mazia controlled the realm of art.

For the next 37 years, de Mazia shaped what we call the Barnes Foundation. She ruled longer than Barnes himself, who died after only 29 years at the top.

It was she who kept the foundation closed to the outside world as much as possible. Why not? The Barnes pedagogical approach was set. The trust indenture was set. What question of importance could not be resolved by reference to the governing texts?

Could anyone enter the gallery? Consulting the indenture, de Mazia concluded no. Should children be allowed? No. Could photographs be taken of the art? No. Could reproductions be made? No. Should the artworks be cleaned and conserved? No. Could the work be cataloged? No. Should the endowment be invested in corporate stocks? No.

Much of this had to do with de Mazia's interpretations of Barnes, not the doctor's unambiguous stipulations in the sacred trust indenture.

Like an enwebbed Dickensian chamber, the world of the Barnes Foundation remained in stasis for nearly four decades. Students attended. De Mazia taught. The public was kept at bay, for the most part. Life went on as it always had.

Then it all cracked open.

In 1988, Violette de Mazia died, ushering in a new world of contentious and calamitous wonders.

Lincoln University became completely responsible for nominating four of the five Barnes trustees. That led to the fateful 1990 decision to install prominent Philadelphia attorney - and Lincoln trustee and counsel - Richard Glanton as foundation president.

Glanton, a man whose self-esteem seemed matched only by his ambition, 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 his dead rival's aesthetic discernment: Why not sell off Barnes' second-rate Renoirs, he wondered. (Under Annenberg, The Inquirer in 1952 had initiated a lawsuit seeking to pry the Barnes' doors open for the public; the court threw it out. Deputy state attorney general Lois G. Forer - a zealous advocate for the public interest - eventually reopened litigation and won less-restrictive admissions a decade later.)

After getting in his public licks about the Renoirs, Annenberg clearly saw controversy in Glanton's sales proposal and, wanting no part of it, severed all connection with the foundation.

In the face of proposed sales, though, former Barnes students were not prepared to stand down. They went to court to block any deals. They opposed expansion of public visiting hours, restricted to 21/2 days a week. They sought to bar increased admissions fees. They wanted no social functions in the gallery. Violette de Mazia's estate joined the legal fray, also opposing art sales, increased admissions, and other alterations of settled practice and indenture commandments.

Under withering fire, Glanton backed off from his sales push and proposed an international art road show instead, a potentially lucrative idea that violated the trust indenture just as much as any sale.

Proceeds of the tour, the Barnes argued in Montgomery County Orphans' Court, were necessary for a top-to-bottom building renovation and installation of adequate climate controls. Former Barnes students, deeply anxious over what they perceived as a coming sea change in the closed Barnes world, opposed the tour.

But the foundation was able to demonstrate the need, Glanton prevailed in court, and 83 paintings went off in 1993 to cities around the world. When they returned to renovated galleries two years later, Glanton sought to maximize attendance, and the "plain people" began flocking to Merion.

Neighbors were appalled by the buses and crowds. In 1956, a total of 326 people visited the Barnes. Now there were tens of thousands. And Glanton talked of more.

A zoning dispute triggered by the crowds mutated into suits and countersuits between foundation and township. Rhetoric quickly escalated. Glanton, an African American, accused his adversaries of racism and sued. His suits were dismissed by the courts, leaving bitter mistrust in place of bus fumes.

By the late 1990s the world of the foundation had devolved into something resembling a warring, dysfunctional family clan. Students, de Mazia's foundation, teachers, trustees, neighbors, township officials, Lincoln University officials - all accused one another of breaches of trust, bad faith, illegalities, and worse.

In 1998, when Glanton was finally deposed as president, the foundation was bleeding money. The trust indenture barred most investments; Glanton's litigious excesses took a spectacular toll on the dwindling endowment.

Professional director Kimberly Camp then took the helm and cast a wide net seeking foundation support, large cash infusions, and ideas for a self-sustaining future.

Casual talk of a possible move to Philadelphia had ricocheted around the foundation for several years during Glanton's tenure and continued to be bandied about. In early 2001, Raymond Perelman, then chair of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, openly speculated about it in the New York Times and The Inquirer, as did former Philadelphia mayor and soon-to-be Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and others.

That political and cultural leaders welcomed the notion of the Barnes in Philadelphia was hardly secret.

But it was the foundation itself, led by its Lincoln-appointed president, Bernard Watson, that approached the area's big philanthropies with an idea in 2001: The Barnes should move. Would they help?

Why wouldn't they? The Annenberg Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts were all focused at the time on strengthening Philadelphia as a cultural mecca. The Barnes Foundation was a perfect fit for their philanthropic missions.

So, yes, the foundations would help if a Philadelphia foundation was to be the result; if the foundation remained in Merion, help would not be forthcoming.

Another round of court hearings began. Another round of contradictory portraits of the Barnes emerged.

Watson and the philanthropies portrayed it as cash-strapped and unable to survive in a hostile Merion environment marked by zoning restrictions, attendance restrictions, and hostile neighbors.

The state attorney general's office, charged with tending the public interest in such charitable litigation, had already announced its support of the move. The de Mazia Foundation did not oppose it, initially. Glanton denounced it. Rendell cheered it on.

Only the pesky students got their foot in the legal door, forcing the foundation to defend itself. Again concerned that a move would destroy the educational focus of the Barnes, they argued that the foundation could sell off its non-gallery holdings and real estate, ramp up its ticket prices, and build enough of an endowment to cover its costs.

Ultimately Judge Stanley Ott did not agree. He granted the foundation the right to move.

Still another round of litigation came in 2007 when a loosely organized and passionate group, the Friends of the Barnes, petitioned Orphans' Court to reopen hearings. Many of the neighbors who had complained bitterly about Barnes buses and tourists in Merion now complained just as vehemently that the Barnes should not be allowed to move.

There were secret deals, they argued, referring to a state authorization of $100 million contained in a capital redevelopment budget. Alas, it wasn't real money and it was aimed at building in the city, should that happen, not in Merion.

In any event, the Friends were denied legal standing.

They returned to court again in 2011, arguing that the attorney general had not done his job in 2004 and that new information, contained in the film The Art of the Steal, changed everything. The new information was that then-attorney general Michael Fisher backed the move in 2002 and strong-armed Lincoln to drop its legal objections.

Again they were denied standing.

So now the Barnes is set to open on the Parkway. Some lions of the art world, whom Barnes without doubt would have barred from Merion had they sought entry during his lifetime, lament the loss of a singular jewel and point the finger at Philadelphia political leaders, at Lincoln University, at the big foundations, and at the tourism barkers.

Those are perhaps the wrong targets if one is seeking to assign blame for two decades of turmoil.

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.

When money and hubris take center stage, can tragicomedy not be in the wings? No conspiracy is necessary.