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Art Lovers and Crackpots

Thursday, April 1, 2004

John Anderson.
Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection.
W.W. Norton & Company. 237 pages. $25.95

It has been described as paradise on earth for art lovers, and it is located in the quiet Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion. It is, of course, the Barnes Foundation. The building is a faux French limestone château, with 29 galleries, designed by the architect Paul Cret. The walls are crammed with paintings — impressionists, post-impressionists, and French early modern all mixed up among each other: The collection contains 69 Cézannes (surpassing the number in the museums of Paris), 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, 14 Modiglianis, and 180 Renoirs, which comes close to an overdose.

Among the cognoscenti, the collection is considered the best private collection of its kind in the world, second in scope only to the Hermitage. Its estimated worth is $6 billion — and that is a conservative estimate. Yet for all its riches, the Barnes Foundation is not a happy place. The foundation is teetering on the brink of insolvency and has for years been mired in endless lawsuits — its plight amounting to a “racial Armageddon” in the words of a local publication. There seems to be a curse hanging over it.

 

John anderson, a contributing editor to the American Lawyer, has now written the story of the Barnes Collection. According to Anderson, Art Held Hostage is a book about race, culture, and politics. The cast of characters consists of some singularly unpleasant people. The inevitable comparisons to Dickens’s Bleak House, in which the endless suit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce grinds through the court, blighting the lives of everybody involved, spring to mind.

But to start at the beginning: The Barnes Collection was assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a self-made man if ever there was one. Barnes came from a modest background and worked himself through the University of Pennsylvania Medical School to become a doctor. Having decided that surgery was not for him, he went into the pharmaceutical business with a German partner and made a fortune from Argyrol, a product that cures gonorrhea. Eventually, Barnes forced his partner out and then sold the firm just before the onset of the Great Depression. When others were jumping out of high windows, Albert Barnes had money to burn.

On the side, Barnes collected art and did so in a big way. And he got it cheap. Towards the end of his life, Barnes bragged to a journalist, “I just robbed everybody. Particularly during the Depression, my specialty was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless painting to keep a roof over their heads.” So this is an art collection built on the Depression and V.D., a rather unlovely mix.

Apart from French modernists, Barnes was also fascinated by African art, an interest that started when as a child of eight he attended an African-American camp meeting. He had, as he put it, “become an addict of Negro camp meetings, baptizings, revivals, and to seeking the company of individual Negroes.” He saw African sculpture as the finest kind of sculpture produced by man. Others had collected African art before Barnes, but none had done so in such a comprehensive way. The Philadelphia Inquirer credits his collection with a major role in introducing African art to the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.

Barnes thus had some very definite ideas about race and art. At his factory, which was racially integrated and of mixed sex, the workers were expected to work for six hours and then sit around for two hours to discuss Barnes’s theories of art and those of his favorite philosophers — especially the novelist Henry James and his philosopher brother William — with Barnes himself chairing the proceedings. However, as the book points out, there was something slightly condescending in Barnes’s dealings with blacks; he did not regard them as equals.

Barnes’s ideas about art were certainly eccentric. He dismissed traditional art scholarship, with its emphasis on historical context and the life of the painter. He particularly loathed Bernard Berenson, the renaissance art historian and leading critic of the day, who, in Barnes’s words, had “resurrected the names of early and very bad Italian painters” — and whose skills Barnes dismissed as those of a mere “handwriting expert.” Instead, Barnes advocated a formalistic and ahistorical approach to art, focusing on the interplay of its compositional elements and seeking to establish universal and objective laws governing art as if it were a branch of science. This is, of course, a particularly barren approach, leading inevitably to useless and very subjective abstractions. But never mind. If you are rich enough, people will listen politely.

 

As anderson points out, while some of his theories may sound harebrained, in many respects Barnes was a true Victorian, “with a Victorian’s belief in rationality and science, objectivity, and the immutable progress of mankind.” In 1922, Barnes transformed his art collection into a foundation, an educational experiment with the stated purpose of fostering democracy and learning. But at the same time he was keen on demonstrating that his remained a private collection to which he alone controlled access. When a prominent critic called to see the collection, Barnes’s secretary informed him that “Dr. Barnes was out singing to the birds and that it would cost me my job if I should disturb him in his regular Sunday morning worship.” Having been rebuffed three times as a student, only on his fourth attempt, when pretending to be a humble and suitably uncouth steelworker, did James Michener gain access.

Barnes hated the other museums and universities in town with a vengeance. He railed in Old Testament fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as “a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution” and refused to lend it anything from his collection. His other peculiarities included a proclivity for writing poison pen letters and for mixing drinks using chemistry beakers, which sounds positively unfestive.

Barnes died in a car crash in 1951 on the way to see his mistress. It is probably safe to say that he was not excessively mourned. But like many crackpot philosophers, Barnes was keen on having his ideas survive him. His will thus called for a continuation of his life’s work. The Barnes Foundation’s charter reads: “It will be incumbent on the board of Trustees to make such regulations as will ensure that it is the plain people, that is men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places who shall have free access to the art gallery.” Barnes left an endowment of $9 million (worth some $62 million today), which should have sufficed — except for some weird restrictions inserted into the will, which were to severely hamper the foundation’s moneymaking potential.

According to the will, despite all the talk about free access by the plain people, the collection should remain closed to the general public. The board could never add to the collection nor sell any of its paintings. And, most important, the foundation’s funds could be invested only in government securities. This may have been sound advice in the 1930s, but by the 1970s — with that decade’s rampant inflation — it was definitely not a shrewd approach. Claims that the original investment restrictions no longer made sense were rejected by most board members as not being in the spirit of Dr. Barnes. On similar grounds, the board nixed the idea of reproducing the art in color. Thus, by the early 1970s, the endowment’s value had shrunk to about $6 million.

After Barnes’s death followed a long interregnum in which the foundation was run by his close associates like the attendant virgins of some ancient Greek temple. The book describes how his former assistant, the tiny Frenchwoman Violette de Mazia (who was said to have been his mistress), would dress up in colors matching those of the paintings behind her, moving with a dancer’s motions around the gallery while propagating the gospel according to Barnes. Having flitted around the collection for four decades, the exotic Miss de Mazia finally died in 1989.

After Barnes’s death, that of his wife, and the passing of his associates, Barnes’s will stipulated that four of the five directorial vacancies were to be nominated by Lincoln University while the fifth was to be held by a banker. Lincoln University had been close to Barnes’s summer residence, and its president, Horace Mann Bond — the father of civil rights leader Julian Bond — had been an acquaintance of Barnes. The university is the oldest black college in America and counts among its alumni Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. But after it became state-affiliated in the 1970s, the institution fell on hard times, with low enrollments and a plunging reputation.

The president of Lincoln in 1989 was Niara Sudarkasa, née Gloria Marshall, whose area of interest was African women’s studies, specializing in the lives of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. And Sudarkasa was determined to make the Barnes collection work for her struggling university. She knew just the man for the job: Richard Glanton. Glanton was a flamboyant local lawyer who had grown up poor in southern Georgia, had worked in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and was now a leading figure in Philadelphia Republican politics. This, of course, made him something of an anomaly. But as Glanton stated in an interview with the author, “Growing up where I did, you think the local Democrats cared a rat’s ass about me and my folks?” Besides, Philadelphia politics is not so much about ideology as it is about pork barreling and personal political fiefdoms.

Glanton got a place on the Barnes board of directors and quickly became its president. Initially, he achieved some useful things. He won court approval for a world tour of the Barnes paintings in the years 1993-1995. Some objections were raised as to the advisability of letting the paintings travel. Paintings do not like to be moved; though handled carefully, paint will chip, bits will come off. But Glanton did not let himself be unduly bothered by these considerations and proceeded to flog his paintings around the world. The tour brought in a much-needed $17 million for renovations.

 

For glanton the benefits of being associated with the Barnes Foundation were considerable. There were gala receptions in Paris, Tokyo, and Toronto at which he was celebrated as the man who brought the Barnes Collection out into the daylight. In France he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by President François Mitterrand, who personally pinned the medal on his lapel. But in addition to his rainmaking capabilities and publicity skills, Glanton had some rather unpleasant character traits. These included a great fondness for litigation and a propensity to accuse people who did not agree with him of racism. The latter tendency became abundantly clear in connection with Glanton’s next move, which was to try to change the admissions policy of the Barnes. In order to attract visitors, the foundation needed parking, and Glanton wanted to build a lot for 52 cars. The neighbors protested the plan, which was soon disallowed by the Lower Merion Township commissioners, since it would transform the quiet residential community.

Glanton promptly escalated the battle: His response was to denounce the commissioners in the Philadelphia Inquirer as racists and to sue the township and the neighbors under the Ku Klux Klan Act for being motivated by racism in their decision to deny the parking lot. And he sued them not only collectively, but also as individual defendants. “The neighbors combined together with the township to form a conspiracy, the purpose of which was to harass the Barnes, to deny the Barnes its constitutional rights, and to shut the Barnes down,” he alleged in the foundation’s complaint. When a fellow member of the Barnes board objected to this course of action, he was simply ignored.

As could be expected, the Lower Merion Township commissioners promptly hit back by suing Glanton and the Barnes board for defamation. The ensuing courtroom battles afford some fascinating insights into the inner workings of the Barnes board, reaching levels of what Anderson calls “profound cosmic weirdness,” with the lawyers going at each other hammer-and-tongs, sliming each other with heated street talk.

Some innocents were caught in the fray, such as the nuclear physicist Shirley Jackson, whom Bill Clinton had appointed to the chairmanship of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She had never been much involved in the Barnes and had resigned from the board six months after the original suit. Normally the epitome of steadfast imperturbability, Jackson was reduced to sputtering incoherence by the ordeal. Serving on an art board isn’t supposed to be like that.

Having sifted through mountains of legal documents, the court finally dismissed the Barnes case as groundless. In her opinion, Judge Anita Brody wrote, “The Barnes has produced no evidence whatsoever that any of the Defendant’s actions were motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose. Indeed, the vast majority of the Barnes evidence has nothing to do with race, but merely details the various stages in a run-of-the-mill land dispute.” As the lawsuit was deemed frivolous, the Barnes Foundation was saddled with part of the township’s legal fees, and it had to pay Lower Merion the sum of $100,000, which went into charitable work.

After the trial, Sudarkasa was forced out as president of Lincoln, and neither she nor Glanton was renominated to the Barnes board. At this point, however, suing had become a way of life. Thus, three years later, in 2001, the two former allies Sudarkasa and Glanton went after each other, with Sudarkasa suing Glanton for defamation. Some further absurd dialogue followed: When asked what his qualifications had been to run the Barnes, Glanton replied suavely that he got his from reading Picasso. “Reading Picasso?” the prosecutor asked nonplussed. “Yes,” Glanton replied. “It says we are born artists.” “Are you an artist?” the prosecutor demanded to know. “Yes, in the words of Picasso I am.” Sudarkasa’s suit was thrown out, but it remains under appeal.

Anderson calculates that the Barnes’s legal bills in the period 1992-1998 have amounted to $6 million. The result has been that, today, the Barnes Foundation is broke. The last remaining endowment money, $900,000, went toward paying for the parking lot (for which, ironically, the Lower Merion zoning board had granted a special exemption in the middle of the court case). A new Barnes board is trying to change the bylaws to set the institution free, while Lincoln University has petitioned to block the changes and prevent the loss of its control. Another battle has been joined.

Having finished Anderson’s exhaustive account of this massive misuse of the legal system, one is left wondering what on the earth possessed W.C. Fields to prefer Philadelphia to death.