The Important Barnes Debate Is Being Ignored

Why are we tearing up a man's last will and testament?

Everyone is sick of the Barnes debate. I get it. I’m sick of it too. But in response to Liz Spikol’s piece, I feel compelled to make some parting comments. Then hopefully we can all move on to the next divisive issue on the Main Line … maybe the annoying blinking lights on Montgomery Avenue that don’t stop traffic anyway, or the new cell tower that no one wants in their backyard, or whether or not we really should be spending money on new trash trucks or some other Earth-shatteringly-important problem.

Liz, like lots of other folks, thinks this debate is about art, and while art is central to the discussion, it is not the meat of the matter. At its center, this matter has to do with the law, tradition and expectation, and the last, final and well-delineated wishes of a man who felt pretty damn strongly about his collection. Frankly, had he collected buttons or shrunken heads, the argument remains that Dr. Albert C. Barnes made painstaking efforts to ensure, through U.S. estate law and with the assurance of precise legal detail, that his expectations for his collection would be lawful and lasting. No one argues that he did a good job. All agree that he did, in fact, have a well-crafted estate trust that enumerated every detail of the care and curation of his art.

Then—for reasons of money and power and, well, money—his last will and testament was trashed, torn up and thrown to the wind. I suppose there is some precedent for such legal shenanigans; Leona Helmsley tried to leave $12 million to her dog, but her two disinherited grandchildren broke that trust and got their hands on the bulk of it. Then again, there’s some precedent for a man’s last wishes being honored; the late Anna Nicole Smith temporarily wrangled some extra dough out of her deceased husband’s estate only to have the decision later overturned and dead hubby’s original trust preserved. The common denominator in these examples, and in many more, is big bucks. Apparently the law of the land is supreme unless there is serious cash at stake.

So, the Barnes collection will move to the Parkway. The art will be displayed in the same bizarre groupings that Dr. Barnes determined. The rooms will be the same size and dimension as the museum in Merion, and the annoyingly distracting hardware will still accompany the Masters. Nothing will change except geography and the wishes of a great art collector, the legally binding wishes of Dr. Barnes.

Those in the know seem to think that hordes of people—throngs, busloads and mobs of people—will flock to the Barnes collection. Maybe, but maybe not. In fact, I predict that the rumble you’ll hear will not be the sound of feet running to the Parkway but that of a man rolling over in his grave.