Montco's about-face on Barnes Museum

Posted: July 09, 2007

Seven years of bitter battles came to an end in 2003 when a Montgomery County judge permitted the Barnes Foundation, holder of one the world's greatest private art collections, to move from its Main Line hideaway to a prominent place on the Parkway in Philadelphia.

Some in the international art community decried the move as a bad bargain, a way to boost the Barnes financially at the cost of ruining its oddly charming galleries, in which Impressionist masterpieces are stacked as tight as puzzle pieces on the walls of a Merion mansion.

But in Montgomery County there wasn't a hint of protest. It was as if a long fight over the Merion operations - in which there were suits and counter-suits amid charges of racism - had worn everyone out.

"If you had a 24-karat gold splinter stuck in your [backside], you would not be sorry to have it removed," Walter Herman, a Barnes neighbor on Latchs Lane, said in October 2003.

Now, in a complete turn-about, Herman and other neighbors have joined the Montgomery County commissioners and Lower Merion Township officials in a last-ditch effort to "save the Barnes" and block its move.

A suburban coalition threatened Thursday to pry the lid off the case and let out buried issues by filing yet another suit - this one to force the Barnes to consider a $50 million plan from the county to help the museum stay where it is.

Legal scholars and attorneys say at this late date it may be difficult to get Orphans Court Judge Stanley Ott to reopen the case.

"I would think it is low probability, but it has been such a crazy case for years that it can't be ruled out," said Bruce Mann, a Harvard University law professor who has followed the case.

The county believes it can force the case to be reexamined by showing Ott that the Barnes held a piece of vital information from him: that the state had put $100 million into its capital budget to help a move to Philadelphia.

That was in 2002, before the Barnes told Ott it was doing everything it could to stay in Merion. Attorney Mark Schwartz, hired by the county, said Thursday: "The question is if there were certain misrepresentations."

The state, to date, has given $25 million for the relocation.

The case is complicated by the will of Albert Barnes, the collector who left the galleries as an educational institution, primarily for the underprivileged. He decreed that the galleries could never be changed, let alone moved. But Ott, in December 2003, accepted a plea from the financially strapped Barnes that it was either move or die.

It didn't help, the Barnes said, that neighbors had combined with township officials to oppose the easing of tight restrictions on the number of daily visitors. Neighbors had complained about tour buses violating their leafy street. But they also quarreled with the Barnes over its plan for a new parking lot.

Martin Heckscher, a prominent trusts and estates lawyer in Conshohocken, said he doubted that either the neighbors or local governments would be granted legal status by Ott to pursue a new lawsuit.

"I think the neighbors really wanted to get rid of the Barnes," Heckscher said, "and now the powers that be - in the township and the county - have said, 'What a pity the Barnes is leaving.' It's quite ironic."

No one in the suburban coalition seems quite sure what has brought the about-face.

It may be a change of elected officials in some of the government offices. It may be that the hot embers of the old fights have cooled. It may be that, by lagging in its political efforts to gain ownership of a new site in Philadelphia, the Barnes itself has left open the door for suburban second thoughts.

Montgomery County Commissioner James Matthews, who was in office during the previous battles but did not oppose the Barnes' moving, said he had an "epiphany" over the winter.

He said that while watching Philadelphia raise millions to prevent the out-of-town sale of one painting - Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic - he realized how much Montgomery County would lose by letting the Barnes go.

The county now proposes to issue $50 million in bonds to help the Barnes.

The money would go to the county purchase of the museum property. The Barnes Foundation would then lease the property. The museum, with its lease payments, would provide the county with the funds to pay back the bonds.

How, then, would the Barnes be saved? Well, public bonds typically are issued at very low interest rates. County officials figure the Barnes could make a couple of million a year by reinvesting the money at higher interest. It says that should be all the Barnes needs to keep itself afloat in Lower Merion.

The Lower Merion commissioners propose to sweeten the pot July 18 by voting to finally lift some of the restrictions on daily visitors that have held back the fees the Barnes can collect.

Township Commissioner Bruce Gordon said the current restriction is 400 visitors per day, three days a week. The plan would let the museum be open six days a week, with a daily limit of 450 visitors - plus 100 students.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach additionally has proposed giving federal status to the Barnes as a national historic landmark. He says that would enable it to apply for federal arts support.

None of this is even close to being enough to make the Barnes reconsider its move, according to the foundation leadership.

Barnes President Derek Gillman said Friday he could not foresee the Barnes reopening talks to remain in Merion.

He said the county's plan appeared to offer little more than what the Barnes could gain by taking out a mortgage, which it has no plans to do.

He said the Barnes also needs major philanthropic support, such as the $150 million that three Philadelphia foundations have pledged to raise for it. He said that help is only available if the museum moves to the Parkway.

"We are very much focused on moving on," he said.

County and township officials held a news conference Thursday to plead their case for the Barnes to remain. Joining them was Herman, the Barnes neighbor, who helped lead opposition to the expansion plans in the 1990s.

He said he hadn't done a turnabout. He said he loved the Barnes as is, and didn't want anything to change its essential character.

"I've been opposed to what the Barnes has been doing for a long time," he said. "Basically, they have been trying to ruin the place."


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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