- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — - A judge has ruled that one of the country’s richest collections of impressionist and postimpressionist art may be relocated from a hard-to-visit suburban gallery loved for its intimacy to a new museum in Philadelphia that thousands of people could visit.

The proposed move breaks a restriction imposed by the eccentric Dr. Albert Barnes, who created the gallery, but it might be the only way to salvage the Barnes Foundation’s troubled finances and protect its collection of Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses and Picassos, Montgomery County Orphans’ Court Judge Stanley Ott said Monday.

Dr. Barnes had instructed in his will that his private collection never be moved from the special gallery he built for it in Lower Merion Township, a community just past the city limits. However, foundation officials said decades of limited attendance and high costs at the stately limestone building have left it nearly bankrupt.

Judge Ott said there was “no viable alternative” to the move if the foundation was to be saved from financial ruin. Other possible solutions, including selling land and lesser art not now included in the foundation’s public galleries, wouldn’t raise more than $20 million, he said.

“History and the evidence presented at these hearings showed this amount would not halt the foundation’s downward financial spiral,” Judge Ott wrote.

Three philanthropic groups offered to help raise $100 million for a new gallery near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an additional $50 million to establish an endowment if the court approved the move. An exact site for the museum has yet to be selected.

Traditionalists feared a move would destroy the vision of Dr. Barnes, a millionaire who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals and medical supplies and opened the gallery as part of an art school whose mission was to help working-class people understand and appreciate art.

“We believe that this decision imperils a unique cultural masterpiece,” said Terrance A. Kline, a lawyer who represented three of the foundation’s students. “I think the students felt that the Barnes Foundation was not just the paintings. It was the galleries, the gardens, the limestone building, the school … all carefully assembled by Dr. Barnes to give a holistic approach to the study of art.”

Dr. Barnes opened his 23-room gallery in 1925 to display his French masterpieces and thousands of other paintings, African carvings, Navajo textiles, Greek and Roman ceramics and other pieces. He died in a 1951 car crash, leaving instructions in his will that the paintings were never to be sold or loaned. The will also stipulated that admission was to be strictly limited and that Dr. Barnes’ endowment was to be invested only in conservative, low-yielding government securities.

The result was a beautiful gallery with a multibillion-dollar collection that relatively few people got a chance to see.

The collection is open to the public only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and no more than 400 people may visit each day. Tickets are available only by reservation and lately have been selling out months in advance. On-site parking is limited, and Lower Merion Township has barred people from leaving their cars on the street.

Judge Ott acknowledged that some would view permitting the gallery to move to Philadelphia as “an outrageous violation of the donor’s trust” but said archival materials had convinced him that Dr. Barnes had expected the collection to have much greater public exposure than it has received to date.

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