Monday, September 10, 2007

"There's no good reason for Ott to reconsider his decision. It's time to press on" (UPDATED 2X)

The Philadelphia Inquirer had an editorial on the Barnes on Friday. In today's paper, Inga Saffron reports on some on-pressing: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have been chosen to design the new museum. Saffron likes the choice: Williams and Tsien are a "good fit for the Barnes, which is obliged by the courts to replicate its idiosyncratic 1920s galleries that now house the collection."

UPDATE: More from Robin Pogrebin in today's New York Times: "In 2004 a judge in Montgomery County, Pa., cleared the way for the move by ruling that it was the only way to save the cash-strapped Barnes from bankruptcy. (Three Philadelphia-area foundations have pledged to finance the relocation.) But even while allowing the foundation to violate the wishes of its founder, Albert C. Barnes — who mandated that no picture could ever be moved on the walls — the judge said that a transplanted Barnes should strive to be a re-creation of the original. ... Thus Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams must work within those parameters even as they create something new ...."

UPDATE 2: Tyler Green is not impressed with the Inquirer's editorial. In particular, he takes issue with the board's assertion that "[Judge] Ott decided that businessman Albert C. Barnes' collection could be moved in order to expose it to a wider audience." I think Tyler's right that that was by no means the rationale for the decision, but, near the end of his opinion, Judge Ott did say the following: "By many interested observers, permitting the gallery to move to Philadelphia will be viewed as an outrageous violation of the donor's trust. However, some of the archival materials introduced at the hearings led us to think otherwise. Contained therein were signals that Dr. Barnes expected the collection to have much greater public exposure after his death."

The LA Times's Christopher Knight also thinks Judge Ott should reopen the proceedings. He cites to "two disquieting facts that emerged after his 2004 ruling" which "imply" that he was "duped." The two facts, which keep coming up in this conversation and so are worth looking at a little more closely, are:

1. In 2002, "the state appropriated $100 million for downtown construction. But that huge budget allocation was never publicly announced. It remained undisclosed for four years -- until long after the judge's ruling."

2. Also in 2002, the The Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the three charitable foundations leading the charge to move the Barnes to Philadelphia, filed an IRS application to change its status from a private foundation to a public charity. According to Knight: "Pew's application held out its management of Barnes fundraising as 'a prime example of the valuable role that [Pew] will play.' But that's not the story Pew Charitable Trusts President Rebecca W. Rimel later told Ott's court, according to the [Friends of the Barnes recent] petition. By the time she took the stand to testify in the Barnes hearing, the successful change in her foundation's status had been announced. Yet the change, she said, was 'not based on anything that may or may not happen with the Barnes. . . . It has no implications whatsoever.'"

I'm not sure I see why these are supposed to be grounds for reopening (let along reversing) the earlier decision, which expressly turned on the answers to three questions:

(1) Could the Barnes raise enough money through the sale of its non-gallery assets to keep the collection in Merion and achieve fiscal stability?

(2) Can the Philadelphia facility be constructed on the $100 million budget that was being proposed?

(3) Is the Foundation's so-called three-campus model -- the new Philadelphia museum, administrative offices in Merion, and a Chester County farmhouse operating as a "living museum" -- feasible?

Looking at those three questions, and turning back to Knight's first point -- the $100 million that had been allocated for downtown construction -- doesn't that actually help support the Judge's decision? If anything, it would have given him additional comfort on the second of the three questions (is this thing really going to get built in Philadelphia?), without, so far as I can see, affecting the answers to the other two questions in any way. Similarly, the second point Knight raises seems not to have anything at all to do with the three questions the Judge was considering. Sure, Rebecca Rimel may have been less than fully candid in answering that question (and I'm not sure I see even that: wasn't she just saying that the change in status was going forward no matter what happened with the Barnes, which for all we know was entirely true?) -- but, if so, what does that testimony have to do with whether enough money could be raised through the sale of non-gallery assets to keep the collection in Merion, or whether the Philadelphia facility could be constructed on the proposed budget, or whether the three-campus model worked?

I had reservations of my own about the decision, but these particular issues have never struck me as especially serious.