Wisdom and Warnings: How the Controversial Move of the Barnes Art Collection Violated Donor Intent

Philanthropy Roundtable today released a new film in its “Wisdom and Warnings” series entitled Donor Intent Gone Wrong: The Battle for Control of the Barnes Art Collection.”

The 10-minute documentary tells the story of Albert C. Barnes, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who rose from humble beginnings in Philadelphia to amass a great fortune and one of the world’s most valuable art collections.

In his lifetime, and in the instructions he left for those who would handle his collection following his death, Barnes explicitly indicated he viewed his art collection as an educational tool, not merely an exhibit. It was to be hosted outside the city by an educational institution and enjoyed by small groups of students passionate about art theory and members of the working class eager to learn. However, after he died unexpectedly, power brokers in Philadelphia saw the collection as an untapped financial asset. They wrangled control of the collection through litigation and political maneuvering, ultimately moving the art to the center of the city and making it available to anyone willing to pay the price of admission.

The film features interviews with former Barnes student and attorney Nick Tinari and attorney John Anderson, who authored a book about the Barnes case, “Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection.” It also includes donor intent experts Joanne Florino and Dr. Kathi Badertscher who distill the lessons learned from the Barnes case and offer advice for donors who wish to protect their philanthropic legacies. Florino is Philanthropy Roundtable’s Adam Meyerson distinguished fellow in philanthropic excellence, and Badertscher is director of graduate programs for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

An Intimate Learning Experience

Barnes grew up in poverty and escaped the slums of Philadelphia to become a successful chemist and entrepreneur who amassed a multi-million dollar fortune and “perhaps the greatest post-impressionist art collection in the world,” according to Anderson.

However, Barnes was more than an art lover and collector. He was just as passionate about arts education.

In 1922, at the age of 50, Barnes established a foundation to allow students access to his collection for the purpose of learning art theory. Barnes housed the collection in Merion, Pennsylvania, and created an intimate space for students to enjoy and study the art, which includes works by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh, among many other masters of painting and sculpture.

“He created that collection as a backdrop for teaching a philosophy, not just of the appreciation of art, but of learning,” said Tinari.

At the age of 72,  Barnes died in a car accident. He had left behind explicit written instructions for what would become of his collection upon his death.

“He was emphatic. He gave the collection to be used for education. Not a public gallery. That’s clear. It’s written everywhere,” said Tinari.

“This was a Political Fix”

According to Anderson, throughout his life, Barnes was “out of step” with the elite in Philadelphia, including politicians and leaders of major foundations, who had their own plans for his collection. He believes they saw a revenue-generating opportunity in facilitating broader public access to the art. Barnes’s untimely death triggered their maneuvers.

“They couldn’t fight Barnes. That just wasn’t going to happen. But they certainly could once he was dead,” said Anderson.

Following a lengthy and costly legal battle, Anderson said those involved “seized control of the Barnes [collection] in ways certainly completely counter to [his] original intention. This was a political fix from beginning to end,” he added.

Today, the Barnes collection is housed in a $150 million museum in Philadelphia that provides full public access to the art – for a fee.

(For additional details on the battle for control of the Barnes collection, read the feature article “Outsmarting Albert Barnes” published in Philanthropy Magazine.)

Lessons Learned

“For Albert Barnes, it’s very clear, the last thing he wanted to happen to his art is exactly what happened,” said Florino. “I think he tried very hard to put protections in place. But even he didn’t anticipate everything that could happen.”

According to Florino, a donor’s intent “is what gives integrity not only to the gift being made at the time but to philanthropy.” The proper expression of donor intent goes beyond a list of philanthropic priorities and includes a discussion of a donor’s philanthropic values.

Florino also stressed the importance of having a very clear gift agreement in writing and carefully assembling a board that is aligned with your philanthropic mission, “so you are leaving behind a core of people who are committed to following your example.”

Badertscher suggested the rigid restrictions Barnes put into effect may have actually undermined his overall goal of protecting his intent.

“We’ve all built something we care about and it’s reflective of our individual identity. We somehow want to see that honored,” said Badertscher. “Sadly, the ways [Barnes] went about trying to build his legacy ended up making it even harder to leave a legacy.”

Both Badertscher and Florino emphasized the harmful consequences that result when donor intent is not honored.

“If donor intent goes away, what we’ve learned is someone else with more money or a better lawyer will always get their way,” said Badertscher.

“The danger is that if other philanthropists feel that the integrity of their gift is going to be destroyed … you will see a decline in giving,” said Florino.

Click here to watch the film, Donor Intent Gone Wrong: The Battle for Control of the Barnes Art Collection”. Check out the Roundtable’s other “Wisdom and Warnings” videos, “How to Protect Donor Intent” and “A Conversation with Carrie Tynan, CEO of Adolph Coors Foundation.”

For more information about how to protect donor intent, please visit Philanthropy Roundtable’s donor intent online hub.

Mentioned on this page

Let’s Keep in Touch

Our Values-Based Giving Newsletter helps philanthropists and charitable organizations apply their values to their giving and follow the best practices for success.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.