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Battle over Barnes art foundation rejoined

Opponents of a plan to move The Barnes Foundation’s multibillion-dollar art collection to Philadelphia have filed a petition asking a judge to reconsider his decision allowing the relocation.
Mark Schwartz
Mark Schwartz, an attorney representing Friends of the Barnes Foundation, addresses members of the group outside the home of a neighbor of the Barnes Foundation in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pa.George Widman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Opponents of a plan to move The Barnes Foundation’s multibillion-dollar art collection to Philadelphia have filed a petition asking a judge to reconsider his decision allowing the relocation.

The petition filed Monday seeks to persuade Montgomery County Orphans’ Court Judge Stanley Ott, who has jurisdiction over Dr. Albert Barnes’ trust, to rescind his previous order, remove the current board of directors and place the foundation in receivership.

“It’s a drastic remedy, but drastic measures require drastic remedies,” Mark Schwartz, lawyer for a citizens’ group seeking to block the move, said at a news conference held on a neighbor’s lawn across the street from the Barnes.

The suburban gallery, which holds a world-famous trove of French impressionist and postimpressionist masterpieces and thousands of other important paintings and objects, won Ott’s permission in 2004 to deviate from Barnes’ will, which instructs that his paintings “remain in exactly the places they are” after his death.

The foundation’s board of trustees said that moving its 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos and thousands of other works from Lower Merion Township to a spot near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum was necessary to rescue it from the brink of bankruptcy.

Foundation established to teach art appreciation
Barnes, a pharmaceutical magnate who died in a 1951 car crash, established the foundation in 1922 to teach populist methods of appreciating and evaluating art.

His collection has been housed since 1925 in a 23-room limestone gallery created by acclaimed French architect Paul Philippe Cret that features a Henri Matisse mural inside and Jacques Lipchitz reliefs on the exterior. Inside, Barnes placed his paintings close together and grouped them with objects such as metal hinges and wrought ironwork as a teaching tool to illustrate common aesthetic themes.

Jay Raymond, a former student and one-time teacher at the Barnes, said moving the institution would be a “work of vandalism.”

“What Albert Barnes created cannot be recreated,” he said. “There is no alternative to a Barnes in Merion.”

The opponents, led by a group called Friends of the Barnes, note that much has changed since Ott granted the foundation permission to move.

In June, Montgomery County proposed to buy the Barnes’ land and buildings for $50 million and lease them back to the foundation. The money would be raised through the sale of bonds, with no taxpayer involvement, and proceeds from the sale would be used to start an operating endowment to put the Barnes on sound financial footing.

Township repeals restrictive rules
Last month, Lower Merion Township officials also repealed rules that strictly limited the number of paying customers.

The township passed a zoning ordinance that would more than double the number of visitors permitted annually, to 140,000, and replaced a previous rule that allowed the Barnes to be open to the public three days a week and restricted to about 400 visitors daily.

Barnes officials have said the offers came far too late to be taken seriously.

Since getting the go-ahead, the Barnes has raised $150 million, including a $25 million grant from the state and millions more from three charitable foundations, to build a new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and establish an operating endowment.

Schwartz said the Barnes board is not acting in the foundation’s best interest.

“They’re acting in the interest of tourism,” he said. “They’re acting in the interest of the Disneyfication of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.”

Groundbreaking is not imminent, however, because the city has yet to relocate a juvenile jail that currently occupies the site.

A Barnes spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.