Concerns over national heritage site status persist
The art collection of the Barnes Foundation, valued between $25 billion and $30 billion, is being moved to Philadelphia from Lower Merion Township with the use of taxpayer dollars, even while opponents argue the current location, over 80 years old, is eligible for national heritage status.
“They’re starting to build a replica of the Barnes foundation, a school for art appreciation that has an immensely valuable art collection, but it’s a national heritage site,” said Evelyn Yaari, a member of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation. “[Gov. Ed Rendell] has seen fit to apply public money.”
For years, the Barnes Foundation has been the center of controversy between those who want the art collection moved to a more “accessible” location in Philadelphia, while others argue for the historic preservation of the original building, in accordance with the will of Albert C. Barnes. Concerns over whether the foundation could raise enough money to preserve the art collection in its present location met with promises of funding, but only if the collection was moved to Philadelphia.
“It’s a collection that has few equals anywhere in the world. There was a feeling that it was isolated and not accessible enough to the public in its original location, and because it was not accessible it did not get the visitation it needed,” said Gary Tuma, spokesperson for Mr. Rendell. “There were also people who wanted the collection moved to a more accessible location in Philadelphia and were willing to put money up for that purpose, but not in its original location.”
Opponents of the move include the Board of Commissioners for Lower Merion Township, who issued a resolution requesting the plans to move the Barnes Foundation be abandoned, in part because “keeping the Barnes Foundation in Merion presents a significant opportunity to advance true regionalism, tourism and cooperation between the suburbs and the City of Philadelphia as expressed by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, the City Avenue Special Services District, and other bodies devoted to regionalism and economic development.”
In response to the financial concerns raised, the Board of Commissioners recommended the Barnes Foundation’s Board of Trustees explore avenues to integrate visitation into Philadelphia without relocating the actual art collection.
The issue of Mr. Barnes’s will and indenture, which request the foundation stay in Lower Merion Township, was resolved with a 2004 court order from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, which reads “The Barnes Foundation is granted leave to amend its Charter by replacing the current Charter with the proposed Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation.”
Legally speaking, the foundation is free to move the collection.
But why did state government get involved?
“The court order that gave permission for the move came out in December 2004 but, including the judge, nobody knew there was line item in the 2002 capital spending bill for $175 million, to construct a building and to pay some of the costs of removing the art from the Merion historic site,” said Ms. Yaari.
In 2002, a capital budget line item allocated $100 million as part of S.B. 1213, introduced by now-imprisoned state Sen. Vince Fumo and state Sens. Brightball, Thompson, Jubilierer and Mellow, specifically for the “design and construction of a museum facility to house the Barnes Art collection.” Who inserted the actual line item is still unknown, but at the time, Mr. Fumo was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Senate Bill 1213)
Other line items in the 2002 capital budget allocated funding for Lincoln University, which has claim to four of the five Barnes Foundation board positions. “To get them to drop their objection to the move, public money was promised to them by Rendell to the tune of $80 million for their capital campaign,” Ms. Yaari said.
To date the relocation of the art collection has received $36 million in taxpayer money from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), which has also received criticism for funding the Specter Library and the Murtha Policy Center.
“The reason state government is involved,” said Mr. Tuma, “is that it’s a complicated story that goes way back. There was a debate that involved the art community, the neighborhood, Lincoln University and a lot of other entities. And the state did not necessarily have a dog in that fight. But with the move, the state saw an opportunity to create a world class museum that would be a tourist attraction and therefore an economic driver. So the state is putting in some of the money, but by no means the majority, to move the Barnes. It’ll be an attraction that will bring tourists into the city and therefore will provide some economic benefit to Philadelphia and in turn to the state.”
But as the Barnes Foundation has a non-profit status, the economic benefit to the state would primarily come in wage taxes and sales taxes from an expanded gift shop. The economic benefit to Philadelphia would come with tourism, which carries its own set of costs.
“There’s been an organized opposition for some time, even though they’ve started construction it’s not going to stop,” said Ms. Yaari. “The state of the budget makes this vanity project all the more gross.”