LOWER MERION, Pa. - As an art world controversy, this one has everything: money, race, class warfare, power politics, zoning feuds and an iconoclastic populist-millionaire collector who is still causing trouble from the grave.
Not to mention the artwork - a world-renowned collection that includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses and 44 Picassos housed in the late collector's French villa in suburban Philadelphia. Displayed in an offbeat arrangement that groups Renoir masterpieces with metal hinges, the paintings and other objects were assembled for the purpose of teaching art appreciation to the working class. The collector left orders that they never be moved.
But now, the foundation that controls the 9,000-piece collection of the late Albert C. Barnes wants to do exactly that - transport the art from its swanky Main Line neighborhood to downtown Philadelphia where the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the planned Alexander Calder museum, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and the Moore College of Art form the heart of the elite establishment that Barnes disdained.
The nonprofit Barnes Foundation says it could go bankrupt by next year if the artwork, valued at up to $25 billion, stays in its current quarters - where neighborhood legal battles, zoning restrictions and other rules imposed by the court have drained the $10 million endowment, limited admission and kept donors away.
"We're operating on fumes," said foundation President Bernard C. Watson.
On Tuesday, the foundation petitioned Montgomery County Orphans' Court, which oversees charitable trusts, to move the collection and alter its governing rules to increase the number of trustees from five to 15.
If the court approves, three foundations, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest and Annenberg foundations will give the Barnes $3.1 million in operating funds for at least the next two years, and help it raise $100 million to build a grand new museum and another $50 million for an endowment.
The move would be a prize for Philadelphia's tourism interests and arts community, creating a one-mile cluster of some of the world's finest museums. While New York and Paris have more art, Philadelphia's museums would be within walking distance of one another.
"I don't think there's any place else in America, and maybe the world, that could trump it," said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
But the foundation faces a hefty legal challenge. In his will and other legal papers, Barnes - who died in a car crash in 1951 - left detailed instructions about how he wanted his paintings handled, including keeping them in "exactly the places they are."
The villa, adjoining gallery and horticulture school on residential Latches Lane form an institution that Barnes always insisted was not a museum but a school, designed to teach ordinary people how to look at and appreciate art.
How the artist sees
Traditional schools taught art history by focusing on the artists and their lives, but Barnes wanted students to learn how an artist sees the world, in terms of "light, line, color and space."
In the galleries, blankets, chests, ironsmith's hinges, pottery, and children's art from disparate lands and eras are arranged alongside works by French impressionists and their successors (identified by the artist's name but not date). In Barnes' mind, this bridged the divide between so-called fine art and the functional and decorative art made by unknown common people.
"Dr. Barnes saw art as a way to enhance perception, build better problem-solving skills and build a better democracy," said Kimberly Camp, the foundation's executive director. "Who knows, you might walk down the street and see your community in a whole new light."
The eccentric Barnes was always an enigma - a benevolent, cantankerous genius who befriended and consulted people who worked for him, even gave them houses and land, but hollered at neighbors when they ventured on his property. He typically slept two hours a night and was known to carry at least two books as he walked around his villa and gallery.
Born in 1872, the son of a postman, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School at age 20 and went on to earn a fortune by patenting an antiseptic called Argyrol.
He soon began collecting art from all over the world and hanging it in his mansion without identifying markers, arranged in ways that pointed out similarities in light, line or palette. Besides the French masterworks, he amassed what was then the world's largest collection of African art.
He detested the elite, calling the vaunted Philadelphia Museum of Art "a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution." He set up a school exclusively for the working class, which repeatedly rejected author James Michener when he applied as a Swarthmore undergraduate, only admitting him when he applied posing as a steel worker.
Barnes also railed against segregation, often attended black churches and, in his will, gave Lincoln University, a historically black college, the right to nominate four of the five foundation trustees.
Battles over will
Efforts to relax the terms of the trust began soon after Barnes' death. In 1961, the court opened the galleries to the public, allowing 200 visitors a day by reservation only.
In 1987, the trustees earned court approval to send part of the collection on tour, and in the mid-1990s 81 pieces traveled around the world, earning the foundation $17 million - which it poured into gallery renovations.
As public access increased in the 1990s, neighbors began complaining about traffic on Latches Lane, lined with large, stone Colonial and Tudor homes. Armed with cameras video cameras, the neighbors gathered evidence that the foundation was violating township zoning laws in the residential district.
But the foundation fired the first legal shot and sued the neighbors and the township, claiming that they were racially biased against the black-dominated board.
The suit was dismissed, but the bitterness remains to this day, as does the wreckage from the legal fight, which cost the foundation $6 million. The township imposed zoning regulations that limited admission to 400 visitors a day, three days a week. A court decision caps the admissions charge at $5.
The neighbors who were sued say the fight was simply about traffic and parking, and could have been solved by creating a separate access road that would have kept traffic off Latches Lane.
But the racism charges "poisoned the well, because how do you get beyond that?" said neighbor Robert Marmon.
"The Barnes did it to themselves. They committed financial suicide. That's why they have to move."
Pennsylvania law allows charitable trusts to violate their terms in situations of financial need or other dire circumstances, and the Barnes Foundation has secured court approval for changes in the past.
Foundation lawyers are expected to argue in court that the sweeping changes are necessary to ensure that the collector's primary mission - to advance education and appreciation of the fine arts - is not endangered by the foundation's shaky financial state.
The announcement of the new plans stirred up other longstanding controversies that have swirled around the Barnes collection for decades.
Nick Tinari, a former student and Barnes purist who heads a watchdog group called Barnes Watch, said that foundation leaders over the past decade have brought the financial problems on themselves by overspending the budget, figuring they could always go back to court to chip away at the will.
"It's not like you or me, if we overspend our budget, someone's going to take away our house," said Tinari, a lawyer who is considering ways to legally oppose the changes.
"It's their fault - not Dr. Barnes' fault, not the neighbors' fault. ... This is not the kind of crisis you throw an entire institution away over."
The foundation's new course also caused consternation among some at Lincoln University, whose board was not consulted before the petition was filed.
Under the proposal, Lincoln would continue to nominate four trustees to the Barnes Foundation's board, but with the board expanding from five to 15, Lincoln would lose its majority.
Richard H. Glanton, a Lincoln trustee and former foundation president, said no changes should be made to the foundation's governing rules - especially the "sacrosanct" trustee issue - without consultation with Lincoln. He is calling for the recall of Barnes trustees who voted to file the petition.
Watson, the Barnes Foundation's president, said Lincoln only nominates board members, who are then elected by the sitting board. "How could they possibly recall somebody they have not elected?" he said.
The board needs to expand, Watson said, because a board made up of five members who are not wealthy and have limited access to wealth cannot raise the money needed to support the Barnes. Other prominent museums typically have dozens of affluent, well-connected trustees.
"That was one of the reasons donors would not give us larger grants, and the board was unable to raise money," he said.
Watson is asking the city to donate land for a new building. One possible location is the site of a juvenile detention center - slated to be torn down - near the Rodin Museum.
"We have been operating barely in the black for the last several years," Watson said. "This is an opportunity for us to raise the kind of money we need to carry out Dr. Barnes' philosophy, run the educational program and protect the collection, which has no peer anywhere in the world."