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December 16, 2004

The Barnes Case: Overturning a Will's Restriction on an Art Museum

Indiana Prof. L. Lenkowski has an op-ed in the WSJ on violating the will of someone who left paintings to set up an art museum.
This week's decision by Judge Stanley Ott of Montgomery County Orphans' Court to approve a request by the trustees of the Barnes Foundation to relocate its multibillion-dollar collection of artworks to downtown Philadelphia from suburban Merion, Pa., would seem to put an end to a decadelong legal battle over the organization's future. But the repercussions may continue to be felt for some time to come.

The court proceedings involved a challenge to the will of the foundation's benefactor, the pharmaceutical magnate Albert C. Barnes, which stipulated that the collection's arrangement embody Barnes's own, unconventional ideas about how art should be viewed. In fact, Barnes looked upon the foundation as more of a school for teaching about art than a museum, and he limited access to it accordingly. But longstanding financial problems, coupled with poor management, endangered its survival.

That is why its trustees, backed by the Pennsylvania attorney general (who is responsible for overseeing charities in the state), sought to move the foundation from the suburbs to become part of a new museum that would be more accessible to ticket-buying visitors. Three Philadelphia foundations also pledged $150 million to help erect a new building and create an endowment for its masterpieces, if the Barnes were allowed to move.

Like the increasingly frequent cases of cities using their power of eminent domain to force sale of property by one private landowner to another, the Barnes case seems to pit efficiency against property rights. I feel unhappy about not being able to come down solidly for one or the other-- as an economist, I should be able to advise people about precisely this sort of hard case. Whatever the legal arguments may be, the essence of the Barnes case is that people think Barnes imposed inefficient restrictions on the museum he set up, and they want to get rid of them. This is not too far different from someone doing silly things with his property while he is alive, and we taking it away from him as a result. I suppose that forcing the takers to go through a formal public process helps a lot to make sure that the takings are desirable. But some of the eminent domain cases I've heard about do not seem to present clear efficiency gains, and smell more of government failure.

Posted by erasmuse at December 16, 2004 02:18 PM

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