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The Art of the Steal

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matisse at the barnes

I saw a remarkable documentary on IFC yesterday, The Art of the Steal, which is the fascinating story of how the Barnes collection ended up in a museum in downtown Philadelphia, very much against the express wishes of the man who put it together.

Roger Ebert summarizes the film’s message as, “it doesn’t matter a damn what your will says if you have $25 billion, and politicians and the establishment want it.” In this case the establishment included the Annenberg Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Gov. Ed Rendell, along with assorted Main Line plutocrats. These were exactly the sort of people (in the case of Walter Annenberg, literally the same person) Albert Barnes despised from the bottom of his soul. He did everything within his legal power to keep them away from his unique collection of masterpieces, which he wanted to be used for teaching purposes, rather than as, in his words, “upholstery for the houses of the rich.”

“The Art of the Steal” does not exactly come across as, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced: it is a passionate piece of advocacy, and I doubt it is anything like the last word on this subject (my knowledge of which is confined to what was conveyed by the film). But it is an utterly compelling tale of the New Gilded Age, and very much worth seeing.

Update: This story from earlier this month sheds some additional light on the matters covered by the film.

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  • Warren Terra

    On the other hand, just because you have a lot of money should you get to control what that money does until the end of time, long after your death – tax-free, to boot?

    And doesn’t that question become even more problematic once you’ve converted your wealth into unique and irreplaceable artistic and cultural artifacts? Why should they remain inaccessible in the boonies, just because you felt they should?

    And what happens when the disposition of your fortune is a petty display of pique, or is a meaningless and farcical exercise in tax avoidance? The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a tremendous institution that has nothing to do with the actual desires of that twisted penny-pinching miserable old sod Howard Hughes.

    • Murc

      On the other hand, just because you have a lot of money should you get to control what that money does until the end of time, long after your death – tax-free, to boot?

      Yes and no. There are restrictions on what you can do with trusts; it is generally considered that after a certain time period, it is the living who decide what is to be done with our resources, not the dead.

      But there’s a huge exception here for money used to endow things recognized as being in the public interest; universities, scholarships, charity work, stuff like that. If you endow a charity, assuming it is well-managed and we don’t have a complete societal collapse, yeah, you basically CAN control what your money does until the end of time.

      And notwithstanding your other points, I generally feel like the powers that be ought to follow the law, both in letter and spirit. I don’t feel a lot of sympathy for a curmudgeon who felt his pieces of art should be “protected” from the general public, but he was pretty clear in his will and it was all done legally.

      If people don’t like that, they should change the laws, not come up with creative legal trickery that allows them to circumvent it in one specific instance. I’m sure the Annenberg Foundation would love to get behind legislation that would weaken the rights of private endowments to posthumously manage art collections according to the wishes of their endower.

      • Warren Terra

        I’m not sure we’re in disagreement here. I’m certainly not calling for the law to be violated. But the way our system makes it easier for the wealthy to accumulate wealth than for the masses to endure sickens me, and the incredible powers that are given to the wealthy to control their accumulated wealth long after their death may be even worse. As so often, it’s what’s legal that’s the true scandal.

      • (the other) Davis

        If you endow a charity, assuming it is well-managed and we don’t have a complete societal collapse, yeah, you basically CAN control what your money does until the end of time.

        I haven’t done the research on this myself, but my Trusts & Estates professor indicated that the Barnes had been in a constant state of financial struggle over the years because of all the restrictions placed on the original trust (ironic, given the value of the collection). Since these financial problems were entirely foreseeable from the outset, this was a clear indication that Barnes was primarily interested in spiting the high-society types who had snubbed him during life, rather than ensuring that the public would be able to benefit from his gift in perpetuity.

        Given the bargain involved in allowing a charitable trust in the first place (no taxation, and exemption from the Rule Against Perpetuities), I really don’t see a problem with modifying a charitable trust into something more beneficial when the settlor appears to have been motivated more by bad will than charitable intent.

        • Murc

          Is that really how the law works? I mean, does intent matter?

          If I set up a charitable trust because my primary interest is giving a big “fuck you” to plutocrats, rather than genuine concern about people whom society is ill-serving, can my trust be altered or broken because my motives weren’t pure?

          • What if the terms of your trust are inhibiting its ability to serve the ill served in the interest of cocking a snook (yes, I said it) at plutocrats? Does the government owe you tax advantages for your petty spite?

            • Murc

              Er… yes, if I went through the proper channels?

              I’m dead serious. If the government crafts a law that says “we can modify any trust we deem to have been established out of petty spite” then fine, go crazy.

              If they establish a set of neutral rules that don’t speak to my inner motivations at all, and my trust follows every single one of them, then they should either change the laws or leave it alone.

              • “we can modify any trust we deem to have been established out of petty spite”

                The petty spite itself is irrelevant. If the trust includes conditions that make it less able or unable to carry out its stated mission, whatever the reason for those conditions, and you discover that only later, do you still owe it complete obedience?

                See also Girard College.

                • Paul Campos

                  The notion that Barnes created his trust out of “petty spite” does not at all jibe with the facts as presented in the film (and before anybody strokes out again I’m not saying the film constitutes the final word on that.)

                  He wanted the Barnes collection to serve a specific purpose, quite different from that served by an ordinary museum.

                  Now one argument for moving the museum is that the trust had already been violated so badly in that respect that there was no reason not to keep on violating it further. That doesn’t strike me as a very compelling argument for breaking a trust that was pursuing what appears to have been a completely legitimate set of goals within the context of the laws that govern such things.

                • I was into “what if” territory there; I have no knowledge of Barnes’s inner life or social relations. He showed every sign of caring a great deal about art and art education.

                • Yes. At the same time KELO FOR ART!

                • I’ve been trying to be polite about this, but I can no longer remember why.

                • Murc

                  If the trust includes conditions that make it less able or unable to carry out its stated mission, whatever the reason for those conditions, and you discover that only later, do you still owe it complete obedience?

                  It depends on what the law says. Period. Whether those laws are good ones is a separate issue, but if the people who set up the trust were either idiots, disingenuous, or both, that should have no bearing on the fidelity the law has to carrying out their wishes.

                • John

                  Murc – why do you believe your reading of Paul’s summary of an agitprop documentary gives you a better sense of the legal and factual issues here than Judge Ott had?

          • (the other) Davis

            Intent certainly does matter in trust law, in a variety of ways. For example, if the instructions given to a trust are insufficiently charitable, the trust will be struck down. If the settlor had a specific charitable purpose rather than a general one (“I only want this money to go to ABC University’s medical school”), then the trust will fail if that specific purpose is frustrated (“Oops, looks like ABC U shut down their med school!”).

            On the other hand, if the settlor had general charitable intent and the original express purpose is frustrated, then courts have quite a bit of modification power under the cy pres doctrine. And the modern trend is in favor of allowing application of cy pres even if the original trust directions are merely “wasteful.”

            Simply put, the law of charitable trusts is not a vehicle for unlimited dead-hand control, as much as people would like to believe otherwise.

  • LeeEsq

    Is this really a tale of the New Gilded Age? As far as I can tell, its a tale of politicians plutocrats teaming up against a dead rich person for the ultimate benefit of the public. If Barnes had his than most people would never get to see all the magnificent paintings that he collected. That pleasure would be reserved for some honored students. Its more than a little arrogant to deny the public access to art even if they do not appreciate it in the way that Barnes did or the students would. The art ended up in a place where its accessible to millions more people.

    • Murc

      I am fairly certain that Campos isn’t referring to the outcome, which can be arguably positive (and I love me some impressionism, so I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these) but to the methods involved in getting it there.

      I mean, if a rich guy can’t even use the law to protect his stuff from other, richer, more powerful people, what hope do the rest of us have?

      • Paul Campos

        Right. (BTW over the years the collection became increasingly accessible to the public, and indeed my understanding from the film is that by the 1990s the Barnes was operating pretty much like an ordinary museum).

        The film tells a story of a perfectly legal and enforceable trust being destroyed a few decades after a man’s death because some much richer people wanted to get their hands on his stuff.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Who gives a flying fuck? Institutions like trusts are supposed to work in the public interest. When they don’t, breaking them is a good thing. Enabling a rich guy’s petty spite to be enforced far beyond the grave is NOT a good thing, by any stretch of the imagination.

          • Murc

            Who gives a flying fuck?

            People who care about procedural legitimacy, which matters just as much as positive outcomes, if not more.

            • Manta

              Why do you think that procedures were not followed?

              • John

                Indeed. There was a court case and a judge ordered the trust modified.

            • (the other) Davis

              Modifying a trust is perfectly legitimate, procedurally, so long as you can convince a court that it’s necessary. And if anything, the requisite showing necessary to modify a charitable trust *should* be lower, given that there are no beneficiaries available with the power to assent to modification.

              Setting a high bar for modification leaves you with something like the Buck Trust, which now has a $750 million trust corpus for charitable purposes — but only in Marin County.

        • John

          Until the move, you generally had to make reservations several weeks (maybe even a month) in advance to get in. The number of tickets available on any given day was considerably smaller than what the museum could comfortably hold due to the fact that the rich people who live in Merion didn’t want so many undesirables coming through their neighborhood.

          • You still have to reserve a timed ticket and it’s a lot more expensive in Philadelphia. How’s that for better access?

            • John

              They sell many more tickets a day now. So there’s that. Looking at the website, there’s still tickets available for tomorrow (that is, the day that has just started, Monday), although there’s a longer wait for weekend tickets. It would never have been possible to get next day tickets at the old Barnes.

              And while I can’t say for certain, I would imagine that, as the novelty wears off, reservations will become easier to acquire than they are now.

        • LeeEsq

          In your post, you wrote that Barnes did not want art to end up as “upholstery for the houses of the rich.” If this were really a tale of the New Gilded Age then the art would be divided up between plutocrats and politicians rather than for use of art students. This isn’t what happened. The art ended accessible to millions by screwing over a stupid, ill-will trust. Barnes’ art collection was “upholstery for the houses of the rich” under the original trust because of limited access to the art. Its not for the public.

          • Tybalt

            Because of an educational purpose. Access was not limited; if you wanted to see the art, you could go. What you couldn’t do was be traipsed past it at 10 miles per hour like you get in your typical industrial-style fine art museum.

            I loved the movie even though I was an agnostic about the outcome (I’ve been interested in Barnes for decades thanks to his involvement with Bertrand Russell; they grew to hate each other). But there’s no denying that Barnes had a specific educational purpose for doing what he did and that has been just about utterly destroyed.

            • LeeEsq

              In “industrial style” art museums, you can take your time if you wish. Most people don’t but museums aren’t going to throw you out unless its closing time.

        • and indeed my understanding from the film is that by the 1990s the Barnes was operating pretty much like an ordinary museum

          I was there. It was eccentric. One of the things that was apparently stipulated was that the pictures were to be shown in X arrangement to demonstrate artistic principles that Barnes taught. So the paintings were in rooms like wallpaper, hung close to each other and overtop of each other, over door frames, et cetera. The building was just not a place where they could be preserved, even from sunlight. It was a mess.

          • somethingblue

            Didn’t the judge stipulate that the new building had to replicate the old one room-for-room, including where the paintings (and other things) were hung?

            (NB that I haven’t seen the film or been to the museum(s), so all I know comes from a recent piece in the New York Review of Each Other’s Books.)

            • A little digging says you’re correct, which is a disservice to the art. I wonder how they were hung when the collection travelled?

              • The arrangements are an essential part of Barnes’s theory of art education, which may be ill conceived but he’s entitled to it. Preserving the arrangements doesn’t mean you have to preserve the exposure to sunlight and lack of climate control that constitutes the actual danger to preservation.

                • Josh G.

                  Barnes isn’t “entitled” to anything, because Barnes has been dead for over 60 years.

                • etv13

                  I’m with Josh G. here. In what sense is Barnes “entitled to it”? For how long? If Barnes has a say, what about Gauguin and Renoir et al? Why aren’t we consulting their putative posthumous opinions?

        • Richard Hershberger

          “The film tells a story of a perfectly legal and enforceable trust being destroyed a few decades after a man’s death…”

          Well,sure. This happens all the time. I recently advised a friend on his will. His concern was how to provide for a minor whose mother is deceased and whose father is unreliable. What it comes down to is he has to create a trust for the benefit of the kid, and he has to have a trustee who is, well, trustworthy. Because a dishonest trustee or cabal of trustee can always rob the trust blind. I haven’t followed the Barnes story closely, but it looks to me like the problem is with the trustees. I have no idea how they were chosen, but Barnes should have set up a better system. Of course when you are talking about a permanent institution, the best you can hope for is to extend its honest lifespan as long as possible before entropy sets in.

          • John

            Barnes hand-picked the initial trustees, and then set it up so that they would be replaced by nominees chosen by Lincoln University, a cash-strapped historically black university without a functional fine art department. So, yeah, it didn’t work out that well once his hand-picked trustees died.

          • herr doktor bimler

            So ultimately Barnes’ fault for setting up his trust in such a way that it was vulnerable to a corporate takeover.

      • It was the trustees of the Barnes Foundation who petitioned Montgomery County Orphans’ Court to allow the move, after a previous board had already violated Barnes’s terms by sending some of the works on a world tour to raise money. Boiling it down to a personal beef between Barnes and Annenberg doesn’t do justice to this story.

    • John

      Precisely. The film-makers and other opponents of the move are the most ridiculous elitists imaginable. Do the supporters of the move have their own, not so noble, motives? Sure.

      Would Barnes have hated what happened to his collection? Undoubtedly (although I’d think that decision, decades ago, to open the place to the public was far more of a vitiation of Barnes’s vision of the place than the move to downtown).

      But, ultimately, what has happened here is that millions more people will be able to see this amazing collection of art. Making a one-sided propaganda piece about why this is a bad thing is pretty outrageous. I remember seeing the trailer for that film and being infuriated by it. Maybe it’s just because I live in Philly and the old Barnes was a virtually impossible institution. You had to make reservations weeks in advance, and it was located out in the suburbs. I lived in Philly for almost ten years without ever successfully making it out there (partly my fault, certainly, but the restrictions didn’t help.)

      I don’t see why it’s a good thing for a great art collection to be hemmed in by some dead rich guy’s will. I don’t see the tragedy inherent in “long-dead rich guy’s will is violated so as to allow more people to enjoy his amazing art collection.” The fact that the filmmakers see this as the overriding issue here shows that they are elitist snobs.

      • Emma

        So if you leave a perfectly legal will and some people can declare that they can use your money for the benefit of the general public, it’s ok with you if they take it.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Try actually reading about what happened (including the fact that the trust was going broke) instead of reading tendentious summaries of tendentious documentaries. The judge executed a careful balancing act that in no way resembled an arbitrary decision to just discard the will on a whim.

        • Manta

          Of course: dead people have no rights.

          • Steve LaBonne

            Their rights are not unlimited, nor in any sane society should they be.

        • John

          There was a court case. A judge found that the trust could legitimately be modified. Given that the outcome is obviously a good one, and that the trust was obviously ridiculous (and had obviously already been wildly modified in what could be considered much more substantial ways), why on earth should we demand more procedural fairness than that?

          • Paul Campos

            The film portrays a court case featuring some pretty egregious skullduggery, such as crucial pieces of evidence being withheld by interested parties.

            • Steve LaBonne

              And of course, the film is a perfectly even-handed documentary. Jaysus.

              • Paul Campos

                Try reading the original post a little more carefully.

                • Manta

                  I think it’s better to pretend that the documentary is a work of fiction (so the problem of how faithful to reality it is is not so important).

                  I don’t get what are you complaining about: the outcome was good and the means were legal (by definition, since the courts said so).

                • Steve LaBonne

                  Your weasel words in the post- and your admission therein that you basically have no idea what you’re talking about- haven’t stopped you from making additional uninformed statements in this comment thread. Try consulting the First Rule of Holes instead of arguing with people who have been following this business for years.

                • Paul Campos

                  That’s a rather problematic definition of legality.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  By your own admission you don’t actually know anything about the legality of he outcome.

                • Paul Campos

                  Steve, you’ve made it clear that a terrible social wrong — that it was slightly inconvenient for you to see this collection — has been righted, and that this should end further inquiries into the matter.

                  Others might see it as a bit more complicated than that.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  Now it’s my turn to wonder if you can read. So I’ll say it again: you possess zero information about the legal legitimacy of the decision. You know virtually nothing about the history of the foundation and he details of the unworkable restrictions under which Barnes’s will condemned it to operate. You are basically trolling your own blog.

                • Paul Campos

                  You are arguing that the film is terribly unfair based on your superior knowledge of the facts of the case, the existence of which we’re supposed to take on faith. You haven’t pointed to anything in the film that’s wrong — you’re merely repeating the arguments made by the proponents of the move, arguments which of course were strongly contested in every detail by opponents of it.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  I guess the ancient internets tradition of “won’t someone do my homework for me?” lives on! You’re supposed to inform yourself of the facts before commenting; it’s not my job

                • Murc

                  Uh-huh.

                  Paul articulates a viewpoint that you think is wrong based on your superior knowledge of the situation, but when queries about said knowledge you refuse to either cite it or go into detail about why Paul’s sources are wrong and not to be trusted.

                  And HE’S the one demanding other people do his homework for him.

                • John

                  It is pretty outrageous to reduce the problems of the old Barnes to “it was slightly inconvenient for me personally to see it.” It was very inconvenient for anybody to see it, and for no good reason besides Barnes’s disdain for the Philadelphia establishment.

                  Is it really outrageous to argue that a great collection of art should be accessible to as many people as possible? Especially when the only argument against it is “a rich guy who died 60 years ago didn’t want it to be accessible to other rich people that he disliked?”

                • Ni Hao Lao Wai

                  Stop talking out of your ass about something you’ve already admitted not knowing much about other than a single piece of uberelitist propaganda. It’s unbecoming.

        • Jon H

          “So if you leave a perfectly legal will and some people can declare that they can use your money for the benefit of the general public, it’s ok with you if they take it.”

          When the will sets up a trust that purports to be for the benefit of the general public, and the ability to establish such trusts is intended to benefit the general public, I don’t really see the problem.

          If I’m not mistaken, foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are required to disburse at least a certain percentage every year. If a persnickety billionaire sets up a foundation with rules that make it difficult to meet that requirement, you can bet it’s going to be smacked down and forced to make changes in how it operates, regardless of the dead guy’s last will and testament.

      • Tybalt

        I don’t see why it’s a good thing for a great art collection to be hemmed in by some dead rich guy’s will.

        Because it belongs to the trust! And the trust is subject to its terms, i.e. the will!

        I mean, I get the queasiness over property rights I suppose, but dammit, as a trust lawyer, I did read the decision, and if the film is correct about the information that was withheld from the judge, that decision is worthless, because it takes a substantial part of its argumentative force from facts that are false.

      • Marek

        +1. The film has been pretty well countered, if not indeed debunked.

  • Steve LaBonne

    This is total bullshit. A great art collection is now fully accessible to the public for the first time, in a fine new building that graces the great city in which it is located. Pure win.

    • John

      Precisely.

    • Ni Hao Lao Wai

      And to claim that this is a return of the Gilded Age when the Barnes itself was a fucking paene to the Gilded Age is watercarrying for the plutocrats. Campos should know better, but he doesn’t care because it made an emotional case to him that he bought hook, line, and sinker. The Barnes trust was screwed when it was modified to let people who came out to bumfuck Pennsylvania to see it instead of keeping it away from the eyes of the dirty, dirty public, but hey the trustees said, at least those people from inner city Philly won’t get a chance to gaze upon beauty that their mongoloid minds wouldn’t comprehend.

      This art will now be seen by a great deal more of the public of all classes, rather than squirreled away for the enjoyment of wealthier, whiter, classes.

      • Paul Campos

        Merion is all of 6.9 miles from downtown Philadelphia.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Of course, another fact you clearly don’t know is how many visitors a year were allowed, and the terms on which they were allowed, even after the trustees had the terms of the will changed to actually allow for visitors. Again, this information is very easy to find and I’m not going to do for you the homework you should have done before making a prat of yourself.

          • John

            Specifically, only 500 visitors were allowed each week, and reservations had to be made at least two weeks in advance.

            And any possibility of raising those restrictions was blocked by the township, because Lower Merion residents didn’t want more people coming through their precious wealthy suburb.

            It’s also worth noting that the Barnes is about a mile’s walk from the Merion train station, with no real public transit options to get from the station to the museum. That makes it hard for anyone who doesn’t have a car to visit it, even if it is only 7 miles from Center City.

            • If you’re willing to ride the 52 bus, it will put you down a lot closer.

              • John

                Fair enough, although a 40 minute bus ride is not particularly user friendly either.

                • Forty minutes from Woodland Ave; about twenty from the Market-Frankford El.

      • John

        That’s not fair – Barnes was actually very racially progressive, and gave control of the trust to historically black Lincoln University after his death. Whatever the problems with the trust (and they are numerous), I don’t think it’s fair to go after him on those grounds.

  • I watched this movie and ended feeling that the best possible outcome had been reached. A group of masterpieces–works that form an important part of the artistic patrimony of mankind–were hidden away by an obnoxious wealthy crank and displayed to a small number of people along with his collection of door hinges. Now they will now be seen by millions who couldn’t see them before. Barnes is dead. I see no particular reason why his eccentric, mean-spirited wishes should have been followed forever.

    • Jon H

      Right. It’s like a pharaoh, buried with tons of artistic masterpieces. Only this one granted a few people the opportunity to take a look.

    • herr doktor bimler

      A group of masterpieces–works that form an important part of the artistic patrimony of mankind–were hidden away by an obnoxious wealthy crank and displayed to a small number of people

      If they’re that previous and that universal, I vote to take them away from Philadelphia and put them in a UNESCO-controlled museum in Brussels where more people have the chance to see them.

  • Witt

    Does the movie talk at all about Pew’s amazing power grab in early 2000s? They successfully got the IRS to re-define them as a *charitable organization* rather than a foundation, so that they can RECEIVE grants (and, incidentally, are not forced to give away the 5% of assets each year that Congress mandates foundations give away).

    Being about to be a repository for money has turned out to be important for Pew in a lot of ways, not least of which was in collecting grants from other funders for the Barnes move.

    • Paul Campos

      It does, and indeed the film argues that Pew’s application for changing its IRS status hinged in large part on arguments it made about the role it was playing in the proposed move of the Barnes collection.

  • JS
    • JS

      Sorry; totally messed up the tags. The link is to a recent article in the Nation.

  • Deptford

    Surely the point is that the trust was going broke?

    Financial reality no longer allowed the original terms to be enforced, so modifications had to be made.

    • The opponents of the move say that could have been done without relocating.

      Of course, many of the opponents are the same Lower Merion residents who raised a hellacious stink whenever the Foundation wanted to expand hours or parking, but they may be right.

    • Paul Campos

      See the update. According to the foundation’s CEO the foundation was in fine financial shape, and the claims of bankruptcy she and the board made were purely strategic. This is fairly remarkable admission, but pretty much par for the course in this controversy.

      • Steve LaBonne

        And of course, her current statement is gospel truth, and she has no axe to grind. Such as, for instance, hyping interest in the book she keeps threatening to write.

        If anybody has actual evidence on the subject (which will be quite a feat given that the 990s the board filed back then show that the finances were indeed not in good shape), let them go back to court. I won’t be holding my breath. She admits herself, even in her current mode that things really were bad in 2000 but had stabilized by 2002. That’s not evidence that the trust was sound long-term.

        A less tendentious reading than Campos’s.

        • Paul Campos

          So when she said the foundation was in terrible shape she was telling the truth, but now she’s lying. Got it.

          • John

            The financial state of the Barnes at the time was the subject of a court case, where both sides had to present evidence and a judge ruled on what he found to be credible based on the evidence. So that’s the basis for what the judge decided then.

            On the other side is what the former director vaguely says now in a blog post.

          • Josh G.

            She told two contradictory stories, so one of them must be a lie. There are serious penalties for lying under oath, but there are no penalties for lying in a newspaper article…

      • I assume the judge didn’t just take Camp’s word about the state of the Barnes’s finances.

  • firefall

    I have the feeling I’m missing a huge chunk of something here … what reason is there NOT to make this move? the pro’s seem fairly cogent, but I haven’t actually heard any specific anti’s, from a public policy POV

    • Steve LaBonne

      That’s because there aren’t any. It’s all about the dead hand of Albert Barnes being sacred forever, because respect for process mumble mumble. Some people don’t seem to understand that the legal privileges granted to trusts were not enacted just out of necrophilia, but in order for public purposes to be fulfilled.

      • Murc

        Then the legal privileges for trusts should be changed broadly.

        My problem here is that this was a one-off. A bunch of rich and powerful people hated Barnes’ trust, and so they decided to break it. Rather than doing it the proper way, by actually getting the relevant laws changed, they did an end-run.

        I happen to believe this is a bad thing regardless of the merits of the change in question. I could give a fuck that Albert Barnes was a crazy man, I truly could. As far as I know, he played by the rules when establishing his will, trust, and foundation, and we as a society are SUPPOSED to reward playing by the rules.

        It can be argued that the rules are bad. Fair enough. When that happens you get’em changed, you don’t just decide on a case by case basis.

        • elm

          How do you know the proper procedures were not followed? I’m not a lawyer, but some here are and have claimed that trusts can be legally changed. This one was changed in a court of law with a judge agreeing it should be changed. Of course, judges can make mistakes, but why the presumption that she/he did so in this case?

        • Ni Hao Lao Wai

          Except that the trust already HAD been seriously modified far beyond what Barnes ever intended by opening the place up to the museum. By changing the purpose of the trust in the first place, the trustees helped to open the door to further, legally permitted, changes that followed the same goal they pursued.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Again, the rules- which involve very substantial tax, and other legal, privileges- were not put in place for the sole or even primary purpose of rich people being able to control their wealth from beyond the grave. Are you saying the judge in the case should be impeached because he acted lawlessly? Because that’s the logical conclusion of your argument. Your wrongheaded argument.

          • Murc

            the rules- which involve very substantial tax, and other legal, privileges- were not put in place for the sole or even primary purpose of rich people being able to control their wealth from beyond the grave.

            So what?

            I do care why laws were put in place, but only inasmuch as it helps me decide for myself if they’re good laws or not. The fact that trust laws weren’t designed with the intent of rich people being able to control their wealth from beyond the grave has no bearing if, as written, the law allows just that.

            Basically I don’t care what the laws were intended to do in this context. I care what they do and do not allow as they are written down, and whether or not powerful, monied interests can just ignore that by throwing power and money at the system.

            And I’m not sure how you get to “I think the judge should be impeached.” Judges fuck up every day, its usually no impeachable.

            • elm

              But how do you know the judge fucked up in this case? Do you know what the relevant law is and whether or not the judge followed it?

              It seems strange to me to be arguing so much about following proper process when you don’t seem to know one way or the other (nor, to be fair, do I) what the proper process was and whether it was followed.

            • John

              I’m much less worried about moneyed interests being able to use money and power to manipulate the legal system when the outcome is not obviously in the public interest.

              • John

                or rather, much more worried.

        • (the other) Davis

          My problem here is that this was a one-off. A bunch of rich and powerful people hated Barnes’ trust, and so they decided to break it.

          From Pennsyvlania’s Trust Code (emphasis added):

          if a particular charitable purpose becomes unlawful, impracticable or wasteful . . . the court shall apply cy pres to fulfill as nearly as possible the settlor’s charitable intention, whether it be general or specific.

          The “wasteful” provision leaves a lot of room for a court to decide that a charitable trust is not effectively serving its charitable purpose. And application of cy pres leaves plenty of room for a court to decide that making the art more easily available to the public is within Barnes’s general charitable intention of sharing his collection (since pissing off the hoi polloi was not part of his charitable intention).

          These doctrines are intentionally squishy, because every charitable trust that comes before the court when the trustees want a modification will be a “one-off.”

      • Tybalt

        Not respect for process. Respect for property rights. (Of course, seeking respect for property rights ’round these parts may be asking the wrong audience).

        • Josh G.

          The dead have no rights.

          • Tybalt

            The trust is and was not dead. It was very much alive.

            • Well, it’s alive but it should never change from what it was at the moment it was created. Which is an unusual definition of “alive.”

  • herr doktor bimler

    instead of arguing with people who have been following this business for years.

    See, people have been following this business for years and just HOARDING their superior knowledge, not even writing a blogpost about it. Time for a court case to change the terms of the trust fund, open up their heads and extract all that knowledge, and move it to a custom-designed tourist-friendly site in the central WWW where anyone can have access to it.

    • Steve LaBonne

      The tourist-friendly site is called the Internet. Have at it- you have years of stuff to catch up with.

      • elm

        Steve, I generally think you’re right on this and Paul is wrong, but Paul did provide links and you keep getting pissy when people ask you to support your arguments. Doesn’t really help to make your case…

        • John

          What arguments, exactly, need to be supported?

          I don’t see how it’s even vaguely plausible that the Barnes was self-sufficient in terms of actual direct revenues. They were limited to 26000 visitors a year – that’s no more than $600,000 in ticket revenues. With small classes and merchandise sales, it’s hard to see how they get to more than about $1,000,000 in revenue. I’m not completely familiar with how much money is involved, but that seems like a minuscule amount of money to run a museum and maintain the building and grounds. They must have been utterly dependent on charitable donations.

          At that point, the big donors can threaten to withhold funds, and if they don’t get their way, the place could be forced into bankruptcy. Is the argument against incipient bankruptcy that the Barnes could have survived the withdrawal of funding from Annenberg, Pew, etc.? Or is it that these institutions were morally obligated to continue funding an institution they thought was badly mismanaged as a result of Barnes’s stipulations?

          It seems as though there’s basically three possibilities for the Barnes, here:

          1. What actually happened, a move to Philadelphia to accommodate more visitors

          2. Continued existence in Merion through the never ending financial largesse of major donors

          3. Bankruptcy and the break-up of the collection.

          What happened, and what inspired such outrage, is basically that the major donors decided to take away option 2. But it’s hard to see that they have any moral obligation to continue providing money to support a mission they don’t believe in.

        • Tybalt

          He doesn’t have any; if he did, he’d link rather than screaming about how selfish we all are.

  • So much misunderstanding here – can’t deal with it. The Barnes in Merion is located on the border with Philadelphia, hardly in the boondocks. The restrictions on access were changeable, but the Barnes Board never filed necessary application owith Township to expand visitation. To learn more about the legal challenge, please see the Legal Matters section of the Friends of the Barnes website http://www.barnesfriends.org and a post on the Save The Barnes website about the methods used in court to steal the Barnes art collection “fair and square.” http://www.savethebarnes.org/search?updated-max=2011-07-06T21:13:00-04:00&max-results=7

    • Ni Hao Lao Wai

      I’ve been to the Barnes. It’s in the fucking boondocks.

      • It’s really not. Overbrook/Merion are twenty minutes from Market East, ten minutes from 30th Street, and if you don’t like the walk it’s even closer from where the 52 bus drops you on City Avenue (and the 52 is an easy hop from the Market-Frankford El).

        Have you ever tried to get to the PMA on public transportation?

        • John

          The Phlash trolley goes directly from center city to the PMA. Admittedly, it only runs during the summer (and weekends in the spring and fall), and the art museum is potentially difficult to access at other times, but there’s a variety of normal city buses that go up there, as well.

          At any rate, accessibility is a red herring. The problem was the restrictions on visitors, not the location.

        • Scott Lemieux

          I am not informed enough to have any opinion about this controversy, but I will say that I’m not going to take arguments about urban accessibility seriously from people who think a 20-minute walk is beyond the pale.

          • elm

            You lived in NYC long enough to know that plenty of people think taking the PATH into Jersey is akin to travelling to the boonies and is a horrendous ordeal to expect any civilized person to do.

            The only thing that surprises me about this exchange is that apparently this attitude is not restricted just to Manhattanites.

          • John

            A 20 minute walk can certainly be a hardship for older people.

            • It certainly can. I was responding to the proposition “It’s in the fucking boondocks,” not to the proposition “It’s reasonably accessible to every possible visitor.” I’ve been to the fucking boondocks. That’s not where the Barnes is.

              • John

                I agree – it’s not in the boondocks. It’s in a wealthy inner suburb. I was responding to Scott’s post, which suggests that a 20 minute walk is something that anybody can easily do. I can easily do a 20 minute walk, certainly. I walk a mile to get places all the time. But plenty of people don’t and can’t.

        • Marek

          It really is in the boondocks. (Does this settle it?)

        • Jon H

          “Overbrook/Merion are twenty minutes from Market East”

          Walking?

          Google puts it as 1 hour 40 minutes walking, 40 minutes by public transportation.

          • Jon H

            Doh, that’s from 30th street, not market east. Point stands though.

    • John

      I’ve never heard anyone seriously argue that the restrictions on access could, as a practical matter, be changed.

  • Eduardo Ramirez

    Here the former director of the Barnes Foundation who made the comment about bankruptcy clarifies what she meant. She emphatically states that the foundations finances were not ok. When she made the comment about bankruptcy, what she says she meant is that the truth was more complicated, but was simplified by the media.

    I always found the argument that key evidence was misheld from the court case to alter the indenture to be silly. For those who haven’t seen the film, they argue that the fact that $150 million was earmarked in the state budget to move the collection means the collection could have been preserved in Merion. But there’s no evidence, either in the film or anywhere else I’ve found, that that money would be available to foundation if it didn’t move. If the foundation had not agreed to move, I’m pretty confident Rendell would have sat back, let things get even worse, and only then offer a single dime. And, again, only if they moved to the parkway.

    • John

      Yeah, the argument seems to be that the state and the charitable organizations are morally obligated to spend lots of money to allow the Barnes to stay in Merion, where the neighbors insure that it is wildly inaccessible (again: 500 visitors a week! That’s absurd!) They have no responsibility to do anything of the sort.

  • Western Dave

    Eduardo’s got the timeline and sequence here. The assumption that the Barnes was long term viable in Merion is only if the $150 million in state funds was applied to the Merion building. I took my MIL (who had crappy mobility) there back in the day and I can’t imagine trying to mass transit it from our home in Germantown over to the Barnes. It would have been probably a three hour trip with transfers. And the building had almost no HVAC etc. And despite what the Friends of the Barnes and Keep Barnes in Merion have argued, the new building keeps the room arrangement in tact (says my friends who got to see previews).

    The trust was underfunded. It really was move or break up the collection. Rendell sped that decision along by a few years through the use of government money but this really was the only way to keep the collection intact. And the Board never petitioned the neighbors about changing the visiting rules because it was a proposal that was dead in the water. Several near neighbors had made it clear they would never agree to a change. Add in Episcopal Academy moving and the Barnes not being able to get that land for a parking lot because St. Joe’s grabbed it and all that was left was the waiting.

  • Richard

    Read the article in the New York Review of Books about the new Barnes. It gives A brief history of the dispute, totally discrediting the story put forth in the movie, and says the new Barnes is a great triumph, true to Barnes’ weird artistic vision while making the collection financially secure and making it available to the public

    • Marek

      Harrumph.

  • LosGatosCA

    Coming from the corporate world (GE) I soon learned through tough experiences for other people and great experiences for me (luckily) that ‘the process’ and ‘the rules’ are really just a list of excuses for the regular people but for ‘our friends’ anything can be done.

    I think that perspective on the law and due process as it relates to many things, not just trusts as discussed here, has taken on the same ethical ‘flexibility.’ Whether it’s banks stealing your home, misleading investors, indefinite non-judicial detainment, torture, spying on our own citizens, etc. the rule of law seems to have become the rule of convenience for folks higher on the food chain.

    Whoever mentioned Kelo up thread is on the right path. Just label it an eminent domain power grab of a friendly takeover sort and call it a day. And let all the rich people quake over the same insecurities the rest of us have to deal with – nothing is safe from theft in this gilded age.

    • (the other) Davis

      Dude, trust law is remarkably flexible, especially when it comes to charitable trusts (see my posts above). This is by design — bad things can happen when you give billionaires the power to decide what will be done with their money from their death until forever, with no possibility of modification. (Even the dead billionaires might have regrets, if they were alive to see the results of their instructions.) That’s why modification of charitable trust terms is a perfectly lawful act, and not “theft.”

      Here, we’ve got a legitimate court decision underlying the modification, and some folks who support the losing side claiming that result was based on fraud. Now to my knowledge, no one actually sought to have the judgment overturned on the basis of fraud, which tends to suggest that these claims are overblown. Thus I’d say the attempt to fold this situation into the New Gilded Age narrative is misguided — especially given that the outcome here is undeniably better for all the non-rich folks who will now have substantially improved access to the Barnes collection.

  • John

    For anyone interested Here is Judge Ott’s original 2004 decision approving the move. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but this blog summarizes the financial argument in a way that I think pretty clearly shows that the Barnes was desperately in the red, and only surviving as a result of short term bridge financing from the hated charitable foundations that wanted to move it.

    • John

      Reading it, this turns out to actually be a preliminary opinion – basically, Judge Ott says that in the initial hearings the Barnes Foundation hasn’t demonstrated that a move to Philadelphia is necessary and will need to present further evidence on this score before he’ll agree to approve the move.

      Reading this opinion, it doesn’t seem at all like Ott is just some hack who is in the tank for Pew, Annenberg, and the rest. He goes after the Attorney General’s office for failing to do its job of due diligence, and criticizes the Foundation and the charitable trusts for not providing enough details about the various expenses and the like, and orders them to present more evidence.

      All in all, it seems like a pretty judicious opinion, and like Ott is trying very diligently to balance the various interests here.

      • John

        And here is Judge Ott’s final decision allowing the move.

  • John

    Here is a good article on the situation from the Inquirer.

  • Bloix

    I visited the Barnes as part of a pre-arranged tour group in the 1980’s. It was a curious place – some heart-stoppingly beautiful paintings, many curious artifacts, and more second-rate Renoirs than you would have believed could possibly exist. All jumbled together in the dark on dingy walls interspersed with hinges and other iron hardware from old farm buildings.

    I have no view on the legal merits of the controversy. But I will say that the statement in the linked article to the LA Times – that the move “ranks right up there with the demolition of New York City’s Penn Station on the scale of historic preservation disasters” – is balderdash. Penn Station was a marvel that was used and beloved by millions. The Barnes in Merion was a curiosity that was known to perhaps a hundred thousand people, and loved by a small fraction of those.

    And I’m looking forward to visiting the new Barnes this fall.

  • Jon H

    What role, if any, did the Catholic Church play in trying to keep the Barnes where it is? The old location was practically on St. Joseph’s campus, and the Archbishop’s mansion is close by.

    I could see them putting on pressure so as not to lose the Archbishop’s pet museum.

    • John

      I believe that St. Joe’s bought up the old Episcopal High School campus and prevented the Barnes from buying part of it and building a parking lot there. So they helped prevent keeping it in Merion, in fact.

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