June 11, 2003

There were two excellent op-ed pieces in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer about the ongoing controversy surrounding the proposed move of the world-famous but under-appreciated and nearly bankrupt Barnes Foundation Collection from its current home in suburban Lower Merion, Pa., to "museum row" (i.e., Benjamin Franklin Parkway) in Philadelphia.

The debate unfortunately has taken on unnecessary and unwarranted racial overtones, thanks in no small measure to some injudicious and uninformed comments from the otherwise reasonable Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP.

Bruce H. Mann of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, in "Lincoln Has Influence But Not 'Control'," sets the record straight:

Opponents of the Barnes Foundation's petition to move from Lower Merion to the Parkway claim that part of that petition -- the proposal to expand the board of trustees -- is a racially-motivated effort by white-dominated foundations to wrest control of the Barnes from Lincoln University, the oldest historically black college in the nation.

This serious charge has given both donors and the public pause in considering whether to relocate the magnificent art treasure that is the Barnes Foundation. But the claim rests on a false premise: namely, that Albert C. Barnes gave "control" of his foundation to Lincoln. He did not. Lincoln has never had control of the Barnes Foundation, nor has it ever even attempted to exercise the control it now claims it has had all along. In fact, until now, Lincoln has respected Albert Barnes' wishes.

Shortly before he died in 1951, Albert Barnes gave Lincoln the authority to nominate -- not appoint, but nominate -- four of the five trustees of the foundation. This authority was phased in as each of the trustees appointed by Barnes himself died or resigned. The last Barnes-appointed trustee, Violette de Mazia, died in 1989.

The right to nominate trustees is not the same thing as the power to control the foundation. It is the trustees who vote to appoint their successors, and they are free to accept or reject Lincoln's nominees. If Albert Barnes had wanted to give Lincoln control over the foundation, he could have easily done so....But he did not. He gave Lincoln only the right to nominate four trustees and nothing more. Control of the foundation was given to the trustees to exercise as they saw fit, not to Lincoln....

Lincoln finds itself in the difficult position of arguing effectively that it has control that it never exercised. In the 36 years since it nominated its first trustee, Lincoln has never reviewed foundation financial records, never tried to take advantage of the foundation's resources for the education of its students, and never insisted that the trustees seek its approval or permission for its actions....

If Lincoln had "control" of the Barnes Foundation, then it certainly did not take its responsibilities seriously. Had it done so, perhaps the foundation would not be in the financial hole it has dug for itself....

The trustees of the Barnes Foundation and the foundations supporting them are trying to assure the future of the Barnes. The claim that white-dominated groups are trying to wrest control of the Barnes Foundation from Lincoln -- a control Albert Barnes never gave it -- is a red herring that threatens the future of that very foundation, wherever that future may be.

Acel Moore, in "Barnes: Ego-fest, Not Race," agrees that race is not the central issue:

Some detect a racial animus in this debate. NAACP head Julian Bond, whose father was president of Lincoln and a friend of Barnes, thinks he does. He opposes the move. I disagree with his contention that the collection should stay in Lower Merion. While I agree that race is involved, and inevitably so, I don't think it's the most pressing issue.

This isn't about a small black university vs. the massive white establishment. (In fact, it involves two boards of trustees, both of which are headed by black people.) This is about money and ego.

Yes, money and ego, and the care and tender -- the very future -- of one of the greatest private collections of art ever assembled. And it's about Philadelphia, too. Not just the city, but the greater metropolitan area. Moving the Barnes collection to Philadelphia in one fell swoop will make this city second only to New York as a destination for art lovers.

The collection is literally dying on the vine in Lower Merion and it's a disgrace that civic minded people and organizations that have pledged millions of dollars to bring the Barnes into the 21st century are being chastised -- and slurred -- for their efforts.

Albert Barnes may have been eccentric, but he was no fool. There's no reason to believe he intended for his collection -- valued at as much as $20 billion -- to slide into its current state of disrepair and neglect. It's time to move up and move on.

[Note: For the record, I am a member of the Barnes Foundation and support the effort to move the collection to Philadelphia.]


Post a Comment