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America’s art temple torn between commerce & culture

Philadelphia, Nov. 24 (Reuters): One of the world’s premier art collections is causing a fuss in a posh Philadelphia suburb as the foundation that owns it seeks a judge’s permission to move its dozens of priceless Renoirs and Cezannes.

Neighbours of the Barnes Foundation, housed in semi-obscurity in a leafy Pennsylvania community and once labelled by Matisse as the only serious place in the US to view art, worry about noise and traffic from visitors.

Trustees say they want to save the $6-billion worth of Impressionist paintings and other pieces from financial ruin by moving the collection into a new museum 12 km away in downtown Philadelphia where it will attract more tourists.

But that plan irks art lovers who see the proposed move as a commercial ploy that would violate the will of founder Albert Barnes, who died in 1951 and specified the setting and manner in which he wanted the pictures to be displayed.

They say the plan is aimed at boosting the influence of three non-profit foundations that have promised to raise $150 million to pay for the move.

“You can’t move it without destroying it,” said Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, who has publicly urged the Getty Foundation to donate enough money to allow the collection to stay where it is. “It’s a pilgrimage site,” he said.

Next month, a Pennsylvania judge will take up the issue.

Barnes, a physician who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, established the foundation in 1922 after becoming an art collector and philanthropist.

Housed in a limestone mansion surrounded by a 12-acre arboretum in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, the collection includes 181 paintings by Renoir and 69 by Cezanne — more than in all the museums of Paris put together — plus 60 by Matisse and 44 by Picasso.

Those on display represent only about half of the Barnes Foundation’s total collection and are arranged alongside other artefacts such as furniture, sculpture and textiles, just as Barnes instructed.

Worried about traffic, local authorities have for years imposed strict control over visitors to the Barnes, banning tour buses and limiting weekly admission to 1,200 visitors, who must make reservations well in advance.

“It’s harassment,” said Kimberly Camp, the foundation’s executive director, who argues that 1,000 visitors a day would be a more realistic target. “Barnes did not design a tomb. He did not say that this was a shrine to be kept as it was in 1922 and that nothing should change,” she said.

Lawyer Stephen Harmelin, one of five Barnes trustees petitioning Montgomery County Orphans’ Court to allow the move to Philadelphia, said the foundation’s future depends on opening a new, more accessible site. “There are purists in every walk of life,” he said. “They don’t have to deal with the economic reality of preserving and protecting a very valuable collection.”

Critics say the $150-million price tag for the move is excessive and that the foundation could be made sustainable if its endowment received just $60 million. Others say moving the collection would be a crime akin to detaching the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine Chapel even if the Barnes collection were instaled at a new venue according to the founder’s meticulous prescription.

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