INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Barnes Foundation Chairman Bernard C. Watson has turned down a funding proposal offered by Montgomery County to keep the historic art collection in its Merion home.
Watson rejected the proposal Monday in a letter to a lawyer representing the county, saying the foundation had made binding commitments to Philadelphia to relocate to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He added that the "decision is irreversible."
In a written statement, a spokesman for the foundation said today that "the Barnes Foundation has already raised $150 million from a broad base of donors, has the steady support of the city of Philadelphia and a lease for a city block on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and will shortly pick a world-class architect to build a new home for the art collection to fulfill its mission."
In a letter sent June 12, Montgomery County asked the foundation to consider selling the county the building where the art collection is housed and the grounds, with the county using tax-exempt bonds to raise money for the purchase. The art collection would remain where it is, and the Barnes would pay rent to the county by investing profits from the sale.
Mark Schwartz, a lawyer hired by Montgomery County to keep the Barnes in Merion, criticized Watson's swift rejection of the proposal, saying that the chairman "turned down this offer with the brush of a hand."
Schwartz vowed he would continue the fight in Montgomery County Orphans' Court, claiming Watson was disregarding "his fiduciary resposibility," to the foundation.
Barnes Rebuffs Montco Offer
By: Jim McCaffrey, The Bulletin
Philadelphia - And they are off to court.
Once again the Barnes Foundation has probably landed itself in court, where it will again have to defend its decisions. This comes thanks to its response yesterday to Montgomery County's offer to create an endowment for the foundation. The county believes it can do this by purchasing the Barnes' properties using money from the sale of low interest, county-backed bonds and leasing the properties back to the foundation.
"The Barnes Foundation intends to fulfill its mission 'to promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts' by moving the gallery collection to the site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway provided to us by the city of Philadelphia," Watson said in his reply.
"Over the years, the board of trustees has considered all reasonable proposals presented to us. At this juncture, we have now made binding commitments to carry out the move of the gallery collection to Philadelphia and the decision is irreversible."
Interest on $50 million would amount to approximately $3.5 million a year. Payments to the county would be only $2.5 million a year, leaving the Barnes a $1 million per year financial cushion.
The foundation last year negotiated a deal with the Lenfest Foundation, the Pew Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania to move the Barnes art collection to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
After watching silently from the sidelines as the foundation struggled to overcome hurdles placed before it by the efforts of Walter Annenberg's lawyers, Montgomery County finally decided last week it should probably make a last-minute jump to try and rescue what are undeniably its crown jewels.
"One of the interesting things is understanding the mindset," Schwartz explained in a phone conversation yesterday. "The fiduciary is supposed to exhaust all its options. It's not for Bernard Watson to sit on a throne and wait to be presented with options. They could have gone to the county and said 'let's do this financing.'