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A Battle of WillsPhiladelphiaAlong Philadelphia’s City Avenue, between the St. Joseph’s University campus and the Bala Station metro stop, an ominous black billboard has risen. “A man’s will should not be broken,” reads the legend.
But though that phrasing might seem cryptic, be assured its meaning is clear as glass to any Philadelphian who cares about art — or who just reads the newspapers. The billboard’s sponsor is <>, making this another salvo in the decades-long war for control of the Barnes Foundation.
It’s a war that has brought together a treasure trove of modern art, a historically Black university with a glorious past and an uncertain future, and hosts of players from Philadelphia’s elite in an uneasy mix of power politics, legal maneuverings, human frailty and just plain greed. It’s a war that may end with a decree by the Montgomery County Orphans Court Division later this summer — or that may drag on many seasons more.
Kimberly Camp, executive director and CEO of the Barnes Foundation and perhaps the world’s only African American female head of a major art collection, is hoping for a win in the foundation’s bid to amend its charter and bylaws.
What’s at stake, she says, is no more nor less than the foundation’s survival as an independent institution. With the endowment drained by decades of legal wrangling and possibilities for fund raising poisoned by those same battles, Camp asks, “Are we able to realize our mission of education, to continue the work of our founder and to protect our collection under present conditions? The answer is clearly no,” she says.
Lincoln University — one of the nation’s first historically Black colleges and home of such famed “Lincoln men” as Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and Kwame Nkrumah — is hoping for a win, too. Specifically, in the school’s counter-petition to stop the Barnes Foundation from changing, among other things, a governance structure that allows Lincoln to appoint four of the foundation’s five trustees.
“We want to see the governance issue resolved in Lincoln’s favor,” says Frank Gihan, director of community relations for the Chicago Tribune and president of Lincoln’s board of trustees. “Just as, from an educational standpoint, we want to develop an education program involving Lincoln with the Barnes, and if there’s some monetary value for Lincoln University that can come from that relationship, we want that” as well, he says.
In short, Lincoln’s position is that “we want to remain as close to maintaining (Albert) Barnes’ goals and visions for the school” as possible, Gihan adds.
The problem with that goal is that, over the years, many people have claimed to understand what Barnes’ “goals and visions” were. And far too many of them have been willing to sue each other to get the last word.The Roots of a Controversy
If you’re not an art aficionado, or a subscriber to the Philadelphia Inquirer, you may be wondering exactly what all the fuss is about. Who was this Albert Barnes? Why does his collection matter so much?
The second question is by far the easier of the two to answer. The collection matters because it is, quite literally, the largest and most important collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and modernist masterpieces in the world. There are 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses; there are works by Picasso, Seurat, Modigliani, Monet and Manet.
But this is just a fraction of what Barnes amassed in a lifetime devoted to the avid acquisition of art. There are nearly 9,000 objects in the collection, just 4,000 of which are on display in the Barnes Foundation’s school in Lower Merion Township, southwest of Philadelphia. Barnes and his wife, Laura, also loved ancient African sculpture, Pennsylvania German decorative arts, American Indian and Latin American pottery.
The value of the whole collection is estimated at over $6 billion.
Depending upon whom one asks, Dr. Albert C. Barnes may have been a) an eccentric philanthropist and collector with an interest in social change in the tradition of a Nancy Cunard or a Mabel Dodge Sterne; b) a litigious gadfly to the Philadelphia establishment, feuding famously with his neighbors, nearly every Philadelphia institution of note, not to mention other wealthy collectors in his bid to create the most important modern art collection in the world; c) an educational visionary whose theories were as remarkable and whose stature as lofty as that of his friend and collaborator John Dewey; or d) a little bit of all of these.
Camp, who has read the founder’s copious correspondence, including the nearly 1,800 letters in the Dewey-Barnes correspondence, contends that nearly everything that’s written about Barnes is ill-informed or intentionally distorted. Barnes was indeed a wealthy man. Born in the slums of Philadelphia, he created a product that prevented vision loss in newborns without damaging their tender eyes and marketed that creation into a vast personal fortune.
But Camp notes that Barnes was no philanthropist. Certainly, he could be quite generous about matters such as sending aspiring African American artists or doctors abroad to continue their studies, but, “The Barnes Foundation began as an educational experiment on the floor of Dr. Barnes’ factory,” Camp explains.
He gave his employees a workday — remarkably humane for the times — of eight hours: six hours of which were spent producing Argyrol, the drug of his millions; the final two hours were devoted to using the art he had begun to purchase as a vehicle to discuss the theories of thinkers such as William James, George Santayana, Bertrand Russell and, of course, John Dewey.
Hence arose Barnes’ reputation for eccentricity. His work force was mixed gender and mixed race. All were treated equally, for Barnes had “a deep disdain,” according to Camp, for bigots of all stripes and descriptions — and didn’t mind letting these bigots know his feelings.
Barnes was a brilliant man, one whose personal correspondence included Eleanor Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken, Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert Einstein, not to mention Alain Locke and Fisk’s legendary Charles S. Johnson. He was, in conservative Philadelphia, a man before his time with many ideas before his time. But “an idea before its time is madness,” as Malcolm X has famously said.
Thus, Barnes’ notion of using his collection for educational purposes has been viewed in some quarters as madness. The doctor was barely cold in his grave before one of his sworn enemies, Walter Annenberg, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, was suing to have the collection opened to the public. (Annenberg won, by the way.)
Even today, reporters viewing the collection — the assemblage of items, in one memorable example, such as Dutch masters, African sculptures, Mexican retablo paintings, and 19th century pottery along a single wall in order to demolish the high-low distinctions perpetuated by the Western art establishment and provoke discussion — appear to find the selections, and the philosophy guiding them, merely odd.
So, too, with Barnes’ decision to assign to Lincoln University the ability to appoint four of the trustees to the five-member Barnes Foundation’s board.
When Barnes initially set up the “indentures” that spelled out his intentions for his foundation in 1922, he stipulated that, after his death and that of his wife, responsibility for the nomination of trustees would be split between his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).
But Barnes had a falling out with Penn, which appointed a president whom he despised, and he met the charismatic Dr. Horace Mann Bond, then president of Lincoln University and father of NAACP chairman Julian Bond.
Thus, in 1950, a year before his untimely death in an automobile accident, Barnes changed the terms of the indentures, replacing Penn and PAFA with Lincoln and further specifying that no persons subsequently nominated should be affiliated with any of the major Philadelphia institutions, including Penn, Temple, Bryn Mawr, Haverford College, Swarthmore or PAFA.
Barnes told no one outside his immediate circle of the change. Neither Lincoln nor the general public learned of the bequest until 1960. Bond, from whom Barnes had hoped so much, had been dead for three years.
Lincoln did not achieve full control of the Barnes board until 1989, after the death of Barnes’ intimate and longtime foundation president Violette de Mazia. The de Mazia reign had not been a happy one for the Barnes. Its endowment, for example, shrunk from $69 million in today’s dollars to just $9 million at the time of her death. The physical plant and even many of the paintings had deteriorated under her stewardship, too.
But in the long and already litigious history of the foundation, the transfer to Lincoln can safely be said to have constituted a turning point: from already bad to much, much worse. A full account of the disintegration of Barnes’ and Bond’s hopes for the Lincoln connection is given in John Anderson’s Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, published earlier this year. In Anderson’s analysis, Lincoln made a promising start under Lincoln board member and Barnes President Franklin L. Williams, a man renowned for his probity, fair-mindedness and commitment to the collection.
But when Williams died of throat cancer in 1990, a takeover of the Barnes board was engineered by Richard Glanton, who eventually was to serve simultaneously as Lincoln’s counsel, member of the Lincoln board and president of the Barnes Foundation.
Glanton, backed by then-Lincoln president Dr. Niara Sudarkasa, hindered relationships with potential funders by proposing to sell off parts of the collection — absolutely forbidden under the indentures — and with a controversial world tour that raked in some $16 million in much-needed cash.
But stymied by the zoning board of Lower Merion Township in his plans for expanding the number of visitors, Glanton chose a fatal course of action. Without discussing the matter with the rest of the board or calling for a vote, he brought a race discrimination lawsuit against the township and the Latch’s Lane Neighborhood Association under Pennsylvania’s Ku Klux Klan statute.
The foundation lost that battle to the tune of $6 million in legal fees. The catastrophic loss wiped out the last of Albert Barnes’ endowment.A Vast Conspiracy?
The wreckage left in the wake of this epic battle is considerable.
The Barnes now has its first professional director, Kimberly Camp, who was hired away from Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in 1998. But its financial condition is critical — an audit by Deloitte & Touche found that around $85 million was required to re-establish the endowment, restore the collections, complete the professionalization of the staff and place the foundation on a sound financial footing for the long term. As for relations with Lower Merion Township, the Latch’s Lane neighbors and even Lincoln University — these don’t appear to have recovered.
Just one example: the township restricts visitors to 400 a day up to a total of 1,200 a week — students are counted against the weekly total, a restriction that seems onerous at the least, unreasonable at worst. Meanwhile, nearly 900 cars a day are in and out of the Episcopal day school up the street, Camp says.
When the Barnes sought permission to put up a tent in order to hold a fund-raising event, Camp was told the Barnes “isn’t zoned for fund-raising,” she says, adding that neighbors are constantly taking pictures of alleged  “violations” and taking their complaints to the township.
Given the continued bitterness, it’s small wonder that the Barnes Foundation may have thought leaving Lower Merion — one of the conditions of a $150 million bailout from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lentrust Foundation — was the lesser of the many evils it faced. But that is a move that, since it was announced in late 2002, has stirred a strong and vocal opposition.
The opposition includes Lincoln, which was granted permission to intervene in the suit in February. And it includes the Inquirer’s art critic Edward Sozanski, who called the deal a “hostile takeover” of the Barnes by powerful foundations, which have lusted for decades to have the artworks under their control.
Julian Bond, professor of history at the University of Virginia, chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and “the voice on the Barnes’ audiotaped tours,” agrees. Bond has written to the Pew to express his opposition to moving the collection to the Philadelphia’s “museum row,” and he sees the issue as one with serious implications for the many historically Black institutions with significant art collections. Those collections include the Stieglitz collection at Fisk University.
“It’s one of the most important collections of modern art in the nation, containing Blue period Picassos, Renoirs, Cezannes,” notes Dr. David Driskell, painter and distinguished professor emeritus of art at the University of Maryland, listing also the Indian collection at Hampton University and an important collection of Renaissance pieces at Howard University.
“You couldn’t go to Williams or Bowdoin or Wellesley and propose to do” what the Barnes Foundation is proposing to do to the governance structure of Lincoln University, adds Driskell who briefly served on the Barnes board before Glanton’s rise to power.
Bond agrees: “If this can happen to Lincoln, it can happen anywhere. You can see some foundation people going to court and arguing, ‘Hampton has this great art collection but nobody can see it in little Hampton, Va. Why don’t we move it to New York City?’ It just strikes me as an awful attempt to destroy Dr. Barnes’ will simply so that Philadelphia can have another tourist attraction.”
Camp, on the other hand, says that she has been “deeply disappointed” by Bond’s involvement. Stressing that Lincoln does not own the Barnes Foundation, she says, “Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It keeps people from being clear-eyed about what’s happening in the present because they are so mired in their vision of the past.”
Lincoln may well have a storied past as a private college, Camp says, but today it’s a semi-public institution with the same status as the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Temple universities.
The war of words is far from over. A hearing is scheduled in the matter this month, Gihan says, adding, “This is in the hands of the judge.”

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