Tom Freudenheim and Robert Zaller bring up some very incisive issues about the move of the Barnes Foundation from Marion to Philadelphia. They make the concerning observation that the average museum earns 20% of their budget in ticket sales which leaves the Barnes projections that 40% of their profits will come from their endowment at ledge optimistic and at most foolhardy. Additionally, if the projected $100 million endowment is not met as the authors suggest, 60% of the budget will rely on annual giving. Delving further into the numbers they elucidate a series of examples where the expected figures for the move have ballooned or have not been met. The simple accounting revives the question: Couldn’t the Barnes have been brought back from the brink of insolvency leaving it in it’s current home for far less money than it will cost to move the collection?
Although the numbers are interesting and give more credence to ‘The Art of the Steal’ and the Friends of the Barnes Foundations condemnation of the move, Freundenheim and Zaller expand their outlook nationally beyond the immediate imbroglio, to question the financial and political choices of all museums over the past decade. This indictment of the ‘bigger is better’ fever which gripped arts organizations as much as it did Main Street and Wall Street is brief but compelling. They trace this mentality to the big business elites who sit on museums boards and the greed of richly paid museum directors. Although I agree with the symptoms, I believe that it is too simple and too easy to lay the responsibility solely on the board. In order to maintain and attract new viewers and funders, museums had to expand their collections and give their campuses face lifts. It is true that those at the helm should be held responsible, but to limit the shortsighted excess of a decade to one class relieves the rest of society from its complicity.
Was the move of the Barnes a power-grab by Philadelphia to secure a vastly lucrative tourist attraction? Certainly. Could the Barnes have been resurrected in Marion, upholding the wishes of it’s benefactor? Probably. Would the money needed to maintain the museum in Marion been available without the state funds made available by political will in Philadelphia? Arguable. Lastly, where does the collection really belong? Where it will be viewed and enjoyed by the most people? Where it best serves the desires of the man who assembled it? Now, that’s a matter of perspective that opens the questions of ownership, collecting and the role of art in our society.