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Review of “Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection,” by John Anderson

Art Held Hostage, by John Anderson

The Barnes Collection is a private museum outside Philadelphia established by the industrialist Alfred Barnes in 1925. Barnes was a bellicose visionary who acquired works of modern art to uplift workers in his pharmaceutical factories, giving them art appreciation classes and building a collection now valued at more than $6 billion, which includes some 180 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos and thousands of other works by similar artists. It may well be the most important collection in the world of such material. The Barnes Collection was not originally open to the general public; one could visit only by invitation, and such invitations were not always forthcoming. As John Anderson’s Art Held Hostage makes clear, the place is the brilliant creation of a roughshod eccentric who ruled his dominion with equal measures of snobbery and democratic ideals.

Barnes always had an interest in African-American culture, and what, by the standards of his time, seemed an extraordinary number of black friends. When he died in 1951, he left an indenture with specific instructions about how his collection was to be handled — giving the power to make new board appointments to Lincoln University, the oldest black college in America.

Immediately after Barnes’s death, Lincoln had no say. Barnes’s widow, his assistant (Violette de Mazia, who may have been his mistress as well) and a coterie of friends with life terms on the Barnes board ran the operation. They did so in a secretive and autocratic fashion; opening the collection by appointment only and refusing to lend any of its contents to any other institution or to allow anyone to publish color reproductions of the work. Lincoln made its first board appointment in 1967, when one of the life trustees died, but it was not until 1989, when Barnes’s assistant died, that Lincoln took effective ownership of the collection. And then the trouble began.

In 1951, the endowment of the Barnes Foundation was $9 million, equivalent to about $62 million today. Corruption, bungling, greed and changing financial standards have depleted it; now, there is no endowment left. Art Held Hostage — a morality play masquerading as a legal thriller — tells us what went wrong. Part of the problem was Barnes’s indenture, which mandated investment only in government securities; its terms were responsible for the endowment’s contraction by about 80 percent (in inflation-adjusted terms). But the total depletion of the museum’s coffers owes much to the interplay of racial, local and personal politics.

Telling the story presents an acutely uncomfortable predicament: because much of the trouble came from African-Americans associated with Lincoln, the narrative tends to sound racist. Anderson, a contributing editor for The American Lawyer, makes an unrepentant case against those who ran Lincoln University and the Barnes Foundation, whom he depicts as generally disagreeable, grandiose and incompetent. His arguments are persuasive, though he sometimes veers rather far; the evidence he mounts is not always horrifying enough to back up his tone of voice; and some of this reads as overprotested character assassination.

The two primary figures here are Niara Sudarkasa, president of Lincoln University from 1986 to 1998 and for a time a Barnes board member, and Richard Glanton, a member of the Lincoln board and president of the Barnes board from 1990 to 1998. Sudarkasa is presented by Anderson as weak, acquisitive and commanding, and Glanton as blunt, dissimulating, profligate and charismatic. Sudarkasa was constantly in trouble, fighting accusations of misappropriating Lincoln funds to completely renovate the university president’s house and buy herself a fancy car, and of allowing her husband, the university’s plant manager, to award work contracts virtually unsupervised. Eventually the Internal Revenue Service conducted an extensive audit of her.

But Glanton, a lawyer in a prestigious Philadelphia firm, is the villain of the piece. In Anderson’s account, Glanton swept onto the Barnes board like Genghis Khan, throwing out the established procedures of the institution and setting up a new order that served his interests entirely. Some of what he did was overt: in 1995, for example, he was accused of running up personal expenses on the Barnes account of “almost $57,000.” Other activities were not so open. He fired the long-term security provider for the Barnes and hired another, without telling his board, allowing his enemies to accuse him of doing it to strengthen his hand in local politics. He chose a lawyer for one of the Barnes’s legal actions (to the tune of $448,127.01) who would later become one of his major supporters at his law firm. He regularly acted without board approval and failed to heed the letter of Alfred Barnes’s indenture. When asked, later on, about his methods, he said, “I was the Barnes Foundation.”

To counter arguments, Glanton played the race card. When he had transferred bank funds without board approval and was challenged in writing by a board member, he wrote back, “This acknowledges your memorandum objecting to the Foundation’s funds being deposited in the United Bank, the only African-American bank in Philadelphia.” When opposition to the diversion of money from the Barnes to Lincoln University mounted, Glanton replied, “They are saying black institutions shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from relationships which exist.” When a board member questioned the financing of a newsletter, Glanton accused him of “acting in a racist manner.”

He pushed the tactic to its limit in a fight over a parking lot for the Barnes Collection. Glanton wanted to make the Barnes a more profitable institution, which meant he had to accommodate more visitors’ cars. Neighbors in the residential suburb where the Barnes is located did not relish having their roads crowded, and invoked a zoning ordinance to block the construction of the parking lot. In turn, Glanton slapped them with a lawsuit under the Ku Klux Klan Act, claiming that the whole dispute erupted because the Barnes board was predominately black and the museum was associated with Lincoln — a claim, the court found, that was clearly without basis.

The enormously expensive legal actions Glanton initiated are dizzying. Between 1990 and 1995, the Barnes spent more than $2 million in legal fees. From 1993 to 1995, Glanton took the Barnes Collection on tour, under a legal exception to Barnes’s indenture that he had won after much litigation. The tour was highly profitable; it earned Glanton accolades and helped defray the costs of an expensive renovation of the Barnes buildings. But Glanton got into political games with the tour’s host cities, and the foundation ended up being sued by the city of Rome, which claimed that Glanton made an oral contract with its representative to bring the Barnes Collection to the Museo Capitolino and at the last moment, without prior notice, sent the work to Munich instead. Although Rome lost its case, little Glanton did seems to have been free of ugly wrangling.

Much of the story hinges on Glanton’s relationship with Sudarkasa. With her support, Glanton could just about keep running the show; there were five Barnes trustees, and one other vote could carry the day. Glanton kept bailing out Sudarkasa as she sank into a mess of her own devising at Lincoln; in return, she conceded on many crucial points at the Barnes. But ultimately even she became fed up with his shenanigans, and when she stopped supporting him, he turned on her with a vindictive fury. The denouement was that they both fell from grace. Art Held Hostage leaves them roiling in their final obscurity, while the new leaders of the Barnes, Anderson writes, turn to white-dominated foundations to save them.

Sadly, this whole story, though enticingly intricate, is ultimately rather boring. The idea of human pettiness may be shattering, but the details of pettiness are dull at best. The book presents a litany of he-said-she-said arguments and catalogs of depositions and board minutes. Though he is an adequate writer, Anderson seems to have bogged himself down in the mundane and melodramatic, and doesn’t have the perspective to treat his tale as poignant allegory. For what did Glanton cause chaos, strife and insolvency? “Richard,” Sudarkasa says, “wanted to walk with the big boys.” Another trustee explains: “The bottom line was all ego. He loved the spotlight.” Glanton clearly had no interest in art and very little knowledge about it. What drew him was the prestige and power he associated with the Barnes. To act in this desperate way out of a lust for power over paintings, even some great paintings, seems ludicrous and sad. This is a bonfire of second-rate vanities, which reads best as a portrait of a man pathetic not only for his aspirations, but also because he is clearly smart enough to have done something better.