Everyone at this school has a dream.
Imagine you spend your life pursuing that dream and you successfully achieve it. But then imagine that after you die, the government and other outside forces alter and destroy your lasting contribution to fit their own goals.
This spring break, I took a trip to Lower Merion Township, a Philadelphia suburb, to see the soon-to-be-relocated Barnes Foundation — one man’s lifelong dream that is about to die.
Albert Barnes, an 1892 Penn Medical School graduate and an excellent businessman, was an art enthusiast. He spent his vast fortune collecting mostly post-impressionist and early modernist works before they became famous. Just as a sample, the museum has 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and seven van Goghs. It is now worth an estimated $25 billion.
But he did not like the big-city, white-walled museums that were developing in 20th century America. He wanted to produce a different experience. So he placed his collection in a mansion in the suburbs of Philadelphia, away from the hustle and bustle of the city but close enough so that it could still be accessible.
To protect his vision, he wrote a very explicit will giving control of the collection to Lincoln University and saying that it could not be moved.
When I headed out to the museum over spring break, I began to understand Barnes’ vision.
The trip itself felt like a pilgrimage. After a 10-minute SEPTA ride to Merion station and a mile-long walk in a beautiful neighborhood, I reached an open gate and a mansion.
Inside, I was greeted by a large room of works that I had only seen in textbooks. To my right, was Cezanne’s Card Players, while above was Matisse’s La Danse.
For the first time, I entered a museum and did not want to take the audio tour. This place is above that. It’s about learning to look so that you discover the magnificence of these works by yourself.
This was the aesthetic experience that Barnes wanted visitors to have — and that you get nowhere else.
The process by which the Barnes Foundation was taken over and forced to move is detailed in the documentary The Art of the Steal.
In a nutshell, powerful forces in Philadelphia claimed that not enough people were able to see the paintings and that the museum was financially untenable.
Pressure from the government and three non-profits convinced Lincoln University to expand the museum’s Board of Trustees so that it was now dominated by representatives from those non-profits, who then decided to move the museum.
What a surprise that then-governor Ed Rendell soon invested $80 million of taxpayer money for a new building at Lincoln. The state also spent $100 million to assist in the Barnes moving project. That money could have been spent on keeping the Barnes in Merion.
The bottom line is that this effort underscores an urban liberalism advanced by Rendell and his mayoral successor John Street that has slowly permeated much leadership since the 1960s. It is focused on unwieldy government destroying individual acts of achievement at the whims of what suits its political interests. And even a will that the state law enforcement has a duty to protect will not stop them.
The government wanted to promote tourism in Philadelphia and decided to do that by taking the Barnes from Montgomery County.
This story may yet have a happy ending. A court hearing is scheduled for Friday to address new evidence, because Rendell and former Attorney General Mike Fisher basically admitted in The Art of the Steal to pressuring Lincoln to give up control of the board.
But if that does not work, all of us have one last chance to see the Barnes in its real, original state until it closes in July and moves to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway next year. Take that chance — before you see passion and dream of a man become the toy of three nonprofits and one big municipal government.
Charles Gray is a Wharton and College junior from Casper, Wyo. His e-mail address is gray@theDP.com. The Gray Area appears every Tuesday.
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