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News Flash: Barnes Groundbreaking Set (Funding? Not)

Site of the planned Philly Barnes: demolition of juvenile detention center completed; zoning use permit at lower left.

At some point, I owe you a report on the Barnes Foundation’s recently released conceptual designs for its planned migration from Merion to Philadelphia. More detailed designs must yet be submitted, probably in very late 2009 or early 2010, for approval by the Philadelphia Art Commission.

But there’s some news to break, art-lings, so let me tell you this immediately, before someone else does:

Invitations are going out to Philadelphia’s political and cultural VIPs for groundbreaking on Nov. 13 (not yet publicly announced) for the planned new Barnes facility. What’s more, a new chief curator, soon to be announced, has been selected. When I know more, you’ll know more.

But there are a number of details about the Barnes’ progress (or lack thereof) that I find problematic.

As far as I know, no other commentators have remarked on the fact that the 93,000-square foot facility about to be built represents a significant downsizing from the original 120,000-square-foot facility, which Barnes executive director Derek Gillman had described to me in his office, back in February 2007.

Gillman and William McDowell III, the Barnes’ senior building project executive told me in a joint phone interview today that in order to shrink the building (to control the costs), office space and the gift shop were reduced in size, conservation for metal objects was shifted to the Barnes’ current Merion site, and some storage will shift there as well.

More alarmingly (and this is NOT new information), the projected endowment for the new facility has also been shrunk—by half. Previous plans (announced in May 2006) had called for $100 million to be raised for the cost of the new building, with an additional $100 million for endowment. Now it’s $150 million for the building and only $50 million for endowment. I had previously called the $100 million building cost “a wishful-thinking budget.” (I got that one right.) Now there’s more wishful thinking—that increasing the building budget by 50%, while reducing the endowment by 50% is a formula that will work.

Slashing the resources that had been deemed necessary for the Barnes to function well in its new home gives me traumatic flashbacks to the lack of adequate resources to run the place in Merion—the ostensible reason for trashing the clear written instructions of founder Albert Barnes, by moving to a location more appealing to Philly-centric philanthropists.

Gillman says that $50 million won’t be the end of the endowment story: Fundraising will continue. But what are we to make of the fact that Derek had told me back in February ’07 that $150 million had already then been raised, and the total today is stuck at mere $156 million? Where’s that additional $44 million going to come from? Will even that be enough?

As of now, construction is scheduled to be completed in 2011, with opening scheduled for 2012.

Derek assured me that the unveiling of Tod Williams‘ and Billie Tsien‘s design and model for the new facility has stimulated strong interest among potential benefactors. Fundraising, he declared, will now intensify. But the strategy of “start building now, hope to raise the rest of the money later” did not serve Cleveland well. The current economic climate makes that optimistic strategy even dicier.

If Derek builds it, will they fund? The last thing the Barnes needs is another unsustainable business model.

Excerpt from Barnes’ Zoning Use Permit #234701 (above): “Any person aggrieved by the issuance of this permit may appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.”

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