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Barnes Developments: Desperation Lawsuit, Merion Closure, Philly Update UPDATED

Whenever I visit Philadelphia (as I did late last month), I indulge my morbid fascination for the slow-motion death of a great single-collector facility, to be interred at the construction site of the new home for the Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, scheduled to open in late spring of next year.

Construction is now so far along that, notwithstanding the new desperation lawsuit by opponents to the Barnes’ move from its original home in Merion, there’s no tearing this thing down. We can only hope that they do a decent job of building it.

Here’s my photo of the mega-Barnes’ most distinctive (some would say obtrusive) feature, designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—a jutting light box looming over the facility (which at the moment is merely a frame that looks like an Olympic diving board):

BarnesLtBx.jpg

Here’s what that feature may ultimately look like, as depicted in a rendering by the architects. (This is a screen shot from my CultureGrrl Video of the architects’ presentation to the Philadelphia Arts Commission, which took place more than a year ago):

BarnesBoxRend.jpg

Here’s a recent view of the entire project, at dusk, from the Barnes’ webcam. You can see how the part of the building that will replicate the original Barnes Foundation’s layout—the dark rectangle to the left—is enveloped and dwarfed by the new pavilion for special exhibitions, classrooms, auditorium and visitor amenities. The Barnes Collection galleries account for some 12,000 square feet of this 93,000-square-foot building:

BarnesCam.jpg

Here’s an update on the construction progress, sent to me by Barnes spokesperson Andrew Stewart:

The gallery building which will house the permanent collection should be finished by the end of this summer. At the moment, the construction team is putting up the stone all around the exterior of the building. Inside the gallery building, they are plastering the walls and finishing installing the windows and clerestory on the second floor. The steel framing was completed back in January.

Good luck to the stubbornly persistent opponents of the move, but their latest court filing is an attempt to close the Barnes door after the horse has escaped to Philadelphia. Recognizing that there’s no stopping this well-advanced construction, one of the litigants has futilely suggested that the facility be repurposed as a museum for contemporary art, craft and design—MAD on the Parkway?

There’s one surprise petitioner among the litigants, who are otherwise mostly neighbors of the old Barnes and/or members of Friends of the Barnes and Barnes Watch (two ad hoc groups that are fighting the move). The wild card is veteran New York dealer Richard Feigen, a former member of the Barnes’ art advisory committee, who had testified at the original trial about the possibility of monetizing works that were not part of the core collection at the Barnes’ main facility. He has been a vocal critic of the move from the beginning.

The new legal petition is mostly a rehash of arguments that were already rejected by Judge Stanley Ott of Montgomery County Orphans’ Court the last time the opponents tried to reopen the case (and were rebuffed due to lack of legal standing). Their one new idea is that “the Attorney General, without disclosure to the court, was involved in forcing the change of the Barnes board to allow the transfer of the art collection from Lower Merion to Philadelphia. The Attorney General absolutely violated his fiduciary duties by taking an improper role and without advising this Honorable Court of that role.”

True enough. This argument is based on the then Attorney General’s and then Governor’s shocking did-they-really-say-that moment (detailed by me in this post), which was captured in filmmaker Don Argott‘s Barnes exposé, “The Art of the Steal.”

But Judge Ott made it clear in his initial ruling (which I strongly disagree with) that he deemed the move to be the most viable, least drastic solution to saving the financially beleaguered Barnes, notwithstanding what he regarded as the shockingly inadequate job done by the Attorney General’s office in representing the people’s and founder Albert Barnes‘ interests.

The new argument raised by the petitioners might be cause for an investigation of the former AG’s divided loyalties and possible misdeeds. But I suspect that none of this would, at this late hour, have any effect in halting the project.

As Stewart of the Barnes put it (having undoubtedly consulted with the lawyers):

The latest filing raises no new material facts or allegations presenting issues that would otherwise undermine the integrity or validity of the Orphans’ Court’s previous analysis on the merits of the case and the order permitting the move of the collection.

Responding to the new petition, the court has directed the Barnes to “show cause why the matter should not be reopened.” Dust off those old briefs for the court appearance next Friday.

As for the amount raised thus far towards the Barnes’ $200-million goal, Stewart told me, “We have not released any new details recently”—not a good sign. With projected building costs having escalated from $100 million to $150 million, the Barnes had lowered its goal for its endowment from $100 million to $50 million—also not a good sign. Stewart did tell me that some $47.45 million in state funds have thus far been committed to the project. Fundraising had previously been a slow-go.

While the mega-Barnes takes shape, you should pay you final respects to Dr. Barnes’ Barnes and enjoy its intimacy while you still can: July 3 is the final day on which you can admire at least a portion of the original galleries. (Too late for the second floor, however: It’s already
closed
.)

UPDATE
: In an LA Times opinion piece dated next Sunday (Mar. 13) but online now, Tom Freudenheim and Robert Zaller question whether the new Barnes can “be fiscally viable in Philadelphia.”

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