Bernard C. Watson
is chairman of the Barnes Foundation board of trustees
The recent release of a film on the Barnes Foundation has been taken as an opportunity by some to requestion the move of the collection to Philadelphia and an attempt to skew the public's perception of the reasons for it. As the chairman of the Barnes during a very difficult time and as someone who knows what transpired, I would be remiss in allowing the most glaring misrepresentations to remain unopposed.
The film fails to acknowledge that the move was the result of a prolonged and transparent court proceeding, lasting over two years, the purpose of which was to determine how best to carry out Dr. Albert C. Barnes' wishes. The board took this step only after exhausting all other viable alternatives to keep the collection in Merion.
The judge concluded that he could support the move "with a clear conscience" after listening to hundreds of hours of testimony and scrupulously examining Dr. Barnes' own writings about his intentions for the foundation. The court determined that the move was consistent with the founder's goals and the foundation's core educational mission. The integrity of this decision has withstood repeated attack.
Indeed, not mentioned in the film is that Paragraph 11 of the trust indenture itself anticipates the possibility of a move of the collection to Philadelphia:
"Should the said collection ever . . . become impossible to administer the trust hereby created concerning said collection of pictures, then the property and funds . . . shall be applied to an object as nearly within the scope herein indicated . . . such application to be in connection with an existing organization . . . in Philadelphia, Pa., or its suburbs."
The film's narrative constructs a mosaic of villains and victims that, upon closer examination, collapses under the weight of unsubstantiated allegations of a "vast conspiracy" to undermine the wishes of Dr. Barnes and "steal" the collection. Indeed, the foundation's initial concern that the film would lack objectivity and perspective has been more than borne out.
The film would have the public believe that the Philadelphia philanthropic community, the Barnes' trustees, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Inquirer itself, were all engaged in a conspiracy hatched well over a decade ago to "steal" the collection and give control of it to several potential suspects. This type of plot is what journalist David Aaronovitch calls "voodoo history" in his recent book Voodoo Histories.
As has always been the case, the collection belongs to the Barnes Foundation, and no one else. You can't "steal" something that you already own. Albert Barnes created the foundation 29 years before his death through an indenture of trust, and its trustees are charged with managing the collection the foundation owns. Dr. Barnes' will is not at issue. Lincoln University nominates five trustees, but the indenture of trust does not now and has never given Lincoln control of the foundation. Currently, Lincoln has the most productive relationship with the Barnes than at any time in the last 60 years.
The foundation board is wholly independent, and contrary to the movie's showing the addition of 10 Barnes seats populated by "Philadelphia foundations," none of the foundations that originally offered funding for the relocation has any representation on the board.
To support its grand conspiracy theory, the film glosses over the rationale for mandating increased public access to the collection over a half-century ago. The fact is that the state attorney general concluded that the foundation's nonprofit tax status as a public charity could not be maintained unless the collection was made more accessible to the public. If disdain for public access, emphasized by the film to great dramatic effect, was paramount, the foundation could simply have abandoned its tax-exempt status. It is also instructive to note, as the film fails to do, that the court permitted the move, in part, based upon clear archival support that "Barnes expected the collection to have much greater public exposure after his death."
The film erroneously implies that there was a $107 million state appropriation already available to the foundation before it filed its petition - and that this information was intentionally withheld from the court. In fact, the "appropriation" was only part of a publicly available wish list of projects in the Capital Assistance Budget. The dollar amount of this wish list represented almost 10 times what the commonwealth was authorized to spend. Of this wish list, $100 million was to be designated for a new building in Philadelphia and was not to help the foundation's chronic operating deficits in Merion. Nor does it change the fundamental reasons the Barnes went to court in the hopes of furthering its mission on a more stable and sustainable footing.
One thing is perfectly clear. You can never influence the opinion of those who would prefer to believe in a "vast conspiracy" rather than face reality. The Barnes Foundation was on the brink of bankruptcy, and those who came to its help do not deserve to be vilified, but should be praised for their extraordinary public service.