an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Barnes Foundation to Subdivide (& monetize?) 137 Acres; Offloads Costs of Lower Merion Properties

Some six years after it controversially moved to Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation appears to have decided to monetize the original properties of its founder, the legendary collector Albert Barnes, in both Lower Merion and Chester County.

In a 2004 NY Times op-ed piece—Destroying the Museum to Save It—I had argued that the Barnes should have considered selling Ker-Feal, its little used 137-acre country estate in Chester County, PA, to help raise sufficient money to sustain its main facility in Lower Merion, PA. Instead, the Barnes opted to keep Ker-Feal, but sought and was granted court permission to move its Lower Merion collection to new galleries in Philadelphia, in violation of explicit written stipulations in the trust indenture of founder Albert Barnes.

Giorgio de Chirico, “Dr. Albert C. Barnes,” 1926, Barnes Foundation

It now appears that the sale of a large portion of the Ker-Feal property may be in the offing. That and the recent offloading of costs involved in maintaining the Barnes’ original art facility and adjacent arboretum in Lower Merion (as I discuss below) suggest that the Barnes is seeking to loosen its ties to its founder’s original properties, cutting what it regards as non-essential expenditures, while focusing more attention and resources on community engagement in Philadelphia and on technological enhancements.

A CultureGrrl reader recently alerted me to the Barnes Foundation’s plan to subdivide its Ker-Feal property and, presumably, sell off lots to developers. Thanks to that lead, I have now obtained from West Pikeland Township a copy of the subdivision application, which proposes to divide the 136.802 acres into four lots: “The existing house [the Barneses’ country home] will remain on Lot 2, and three new vacant lots will be created,” according to the application.

Dr. and Mrs. Barnes in the doorway at Ker-Feal, 1942
Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc.

Barnes officials this afternoon declined to answer the six questions I sent them yesterday, regarding the subdivision application and the plans for that property.

All they would say, through a spokesperson, was this:

The Barnes Foundation is working with a non-profit conservation organization to safeguard the rural character of Ker-Feal for future generations. There will be more information when these plans are finalized.

Jonathan Slaven, Township Secretary for West Pikeland, who provided me with the copy of the above-linked subdivision application, told me this:

It is my understanding that the intent for those properties resulting from this potential subdivision will be for residential use. They are in a residential district.

I am not opposed to the sale of Ker-Feal, although many people (particularly area residents) will surely object. But this and, more problematically, the repurposing of the original art galleries in Lower Merion to serve the needs of the adjacent Saint Joseph’s University, which will assume most of the costs there (discussed below), suggest that the 2012 relocation of the Barnes’ flagship facility to a new building on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway may not have achieved its stated goal of making the Barnes financially sustainable.

The Philadelphia Barnes, as seen from 21st Street
©Tom Crane & Benjamin Riley, 2012

When the Philly facility opened, the Barnes’ then director, Derek Gillman, told me that the institution would need an endowment of $100 million to support its three campuses—Philadelphia, Merion and Ker-Feal. The last page of the most recent financial statement, posted on the Barnes website, indicates that its total endowment is at the end of 2016 was $61.88 million, down from $62.26 million at the end of 2015. (The Barnes has not answered my questions about the state of its finances.)

In January, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Joseph DiStefano reported that Barnes’ three-year executive director, Thom Collins, and Saint Joseph’s University President Mark C. Reed had signed an agreement in November for the university to lease the Barnes‘ arboretum and its original art facility in Lower Merion for a mere $100 a year. The university would then bankroll maintenance and security there and spend at least $5 million on capital improvements to the site over the next 15 years, according to DiStefano’s report.

Thom Collins, executive director of the Barnes
Photo by Chocolate Milk Photography

“St. Joe’s plans to offer its students art and horticultural classes on the property, effectively adding the 12 acres south of Latchs Lane to its neighboring 114-acre City Avenue campus, though Barnes will remain the owner,” according to the Inquirer. “Terms allow St. Joe’s to hang its own art in the nearly 20,000-square-foot gallery” that used to be home to world-renowned masterpieces by the likes of Cézanne and Matisse. The agreement “will run for 30 years, and can be renewed after that in 20-year installments, until 2107,” according to the Inquirer.

As part of the plans for the move to the new Philadelphia facility, the Lower Merion building was to have been repurposed as a Barnes research center.

Last month, Stephan Salisbury reported in the Inquirer that the Barnes was conducting an “assessment project [that] will largely evaluate household items around the Merion property and at…Ker-Feal.” He added that “none of the art now in storage…will be sold.” At the time of my January 2004 Times op-ed piece, the Barnes had been offered $12 million for its Ker-Feal property. I suspect it may be worth a lot more than that today.

We’ve come a long way from the idyllically situated jewel-box museum that Albert Barnes had envisioned and crafted.

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of my new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog