Q&A: Robert Zaller

A Barnes Foundation activist and participant in The Art of the Steal documentary

Robert Zaller, a member of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation steering committeeThe Art of the Steal is a brash new documentary that tackles what’s become one of the Main Line’s most enduring controversies: the scheduled move of Dr. Albert C. Barnes’ private art collection from Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The film made its festival debut last fall in New York and Toronto. And while director Don Argott and producer Sheena M. Joyce—a Bryn Mawr College graduate—won’t talk locally until Steal screens here this spring, one of the film’s participants is happy to go on the record about the pending punch the film is sure to pack. Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University and a member of the steering committee of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation. He attended the New York Film Festival press showing as a roving critic for the Broad Street Review.

MLT: You’ve seen the film.
What story of the Barnes does it tell? Is there a slant one way or another?
RZ:
The Art of the Steal traces the origins of the foundation from Barnes’ own humble beginnings in Philadelphia. It discusses his partnership with John Dewey in turning his art collection into a teaching instrument, and his notion of art education as a means of democratic empowerment. As the film makes clear, Barnes originally envisioned housing his collection in Philadelphia, but its utter rejection by the city art establishment understandably alienated him.

MLT: Did the Friends of the Barnes Foundation have a hand in making The Art of the Steal?
RZ:
None at all. Some of us—myself included—agreed to be interviewed for it. We had no part in it otherwise, but the filmmaker concluded that the move of the Barnes was a boondoggle, pure and simple. That’s what we think, too. So do critics and reporters for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Commentary, and the London Independent. No one outside Philadelphia thinks the city is going to wind up with anything but egg on its face.

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MLT: Do the Friends get any significant screen time?
RZ:
The film’s last part describes the formation of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation and its unsuccessful effort, together with Montgomery County, to reopen the move in Montgomery County Orphans’ Court and the rejection of both the Friends’ and the county’s petitions by Judge Stanley R. Ott, who’d given permission for it in 2004. The reasoning behind Ott’s decision—if it can be called that—isn’t discussed.

MLT: What’s your role in the film?
RZ:
I appear briefly and unmemorably, but the principal point I try to make is that, with a net value of $30 billion, the hijacking of the collection is the greatest act of art theft since World War II.

MLT: Does the film advance the Friends’ interests?
RZ:
The film sets out to tell the truth, and I believe it does so. To that extent, it is helpful to those—including the Friends—who want to see the Barnes preserved in Merion, and Dr. Barnes’ vision and will honored.

MLT: Why do you suppose Don Argott and crew are being so reserved and guarded?
RZ:
The distributor will make the decisions about the release. We’re assured it will take place this year. Obviously, we hope the film comes out as soon as possible. Truth shouldn’t wait.

MLT: How did the Barnes collection take on such a life of its own?
RZ:
On its 12-acre site in Merion, the collection became part of a larger arboreal and horticultural environment that reflected it, and that became integral to Barnes’ overall conception of aesthetic experience. As others came to recognize the significance of the collection, some began to covet it—notably Walter Annenberg, whose criminal and reactionary associations are detailed in the film. Annenberg and his paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, attempted to undermine the Barnes trust after his death, but these efforts were unsuccessful until after the death of Barnes’ close associate and collaborator, Violette de Mazia. When Richard Glanton became board chairman of the Barnes (Glanton is extensively interviewed in the film), the door was opened to Annenberg and others to jettison trust restrictions on the grounds of making the collection accessible to a wider public audience.
 

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MLT: What about the story of how Glanton sued the Barnes’ neighbors for protesting egregious violations of local zoning ordinances and accused them of racism under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan statute?
RZ:
It’s carefully set out (in the film), as is the reckless depletion of the foundation’s endowment in costly and frivolous legal proceedings. This self-inflicted “bankruptcy” was then used as the basis for attempting to remove the collection to Philadelphia on the grounds that it could no longer be maintained in Merion. The film points out how the state Legislature granted $100 million for this purpose prior to any petition for a move, and how Ed Rendell dispatched then-Attorney General Mike Fisher to persuade the Lincoln University-nominated Barnes trustees to accept the Pew Charitable Trusts’ control of the board in return for funding for a wish list of Lincoln projects.

MLT: Why is keeping the Barnes in Merion so important? Wouldn’t more people see it in downtown Philadelphia?
RZ:
The Barnes in Merion is a unique cultural site. The building that houses the collection was designed by one of Philadelphia’s most renowned architects, Paul Philippe Cret. The garden and arboretum that surrounds it contains unique species from around the world that are part of an overall site design that, with Dr. Barnes’ wall assemblages, produces a unified aesthetic experience unlike any in the world. The Barnes is not just a repository of great art. As many people have noted, it is a great work of art itself. There’s literally nothing like it.

MLT: The Ben Franklin Parkway location can’t top that?
RZ:
The Barnes in Merion is as easily reached from 30th Street Station by public transportation as the new parkway Barnes would be. It can accommodate 150,000 visitors a year, which is more than twice the number of patrons any gallery or museum in the city draws now, except the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There’s no evidence a parkway Barnes would draw more, or even as many—not a single study. So why spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build an inferior replica of what already exists less than 5 miles away?

MLT: Doesn’t the Barnes have to move? Didn’t it go broke?
RZ:
No, it didn’t—and it doesn’t. The Barnes can be saved for Merion at a 10th the cost of moving it—less than the cost of keeping a single painting, Eakins’ Gross Clinic, from leaving Philadelphia. It’s a state-of-the-art facility, renovated just a few years ago. And the annual cost of running it—before the maladministration of Glanton—was less than half the salary of its current director. The so-called argument that the Barnes somehow can’t survive in Merion after 80-plus years in the neighborhood is just part of what I call the “smog campaign” around the move.

MLT: Are the Barnes’ neighbors still hostile toward it?
RZ:
You keep hearing that from the same misinformed sources that insist the Barnes must move. Just the opposite is true. The Barnes’ immediate neighbors on Latch’s Lane are in the forefront of those trying to save it. They were defamed and vilified by Glanton, but they have always loved and treasured the Barnes. They still do. The neighbors are in the film. You can see them and judge for yourself. And you can see the whole story unfold as it’s never been told before. It’s fascinating—and appalling.

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MLT: What do you think the local reaction will be once the film is released here?
RZ:
It will open a lot of eyes. I hope Montgomery County residents will be outraged at the attempted theft of their heritage, and that Philadelphians will see the move for the civic embarrassment it is. I also hope Pennsylvania taxpayers will refuse to spend their money to abet a crime, and will so instruct their representatives.

MLT: Should Main Liners be more offended by the planned move?
RZ:
The Barnes is what makes our community special. People come from all over the world to see it. Philadelphia says it wants to become a world-class tourist destination? To me, you don’t become a world-class city by stealing your neighbor’s goods.

MLT: How does the film conclude?
RZ:
That the Barnes will move by 2011. Well, that’s already been pushed back to 2012 by the Barnes administration itself—and don’t believe that, either. I don’t think the money’s there to build a new Barnes from private sources, and I don’t think anyone would find public funding acceptable while the state is closing libraries and firing cops. I think keeping the Barnes in Merion will be the only solution.
 

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