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PBS Ombudsman

On PBS, the Arts Are Important, but a Big Story Is Oddly Absent

On Oct. 14, PBS will kick off its first ever Arts Fall Festival, a string of full-length, Friday night performances that will run through December. According to the PBS announcement back in May, the festival will feature broadcasts of classic and contemporary performances as well as film segments on the art scene in Miami, San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, the Blue Ridge Mountains and other areas.

"For four decades, PBS has been a passionate proponent and participant in the arts, giving millions of Americans their first glimpses at dance, theater, opera and music," PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said at that time. Kerger, indeed, is a big and longtime supporter of arts programming, having previously been a top executive at New York's Thirteen/WNET, where much of PBS arts programming, such as "Great Performances" and "American Masters," originates.

In its coverage of the new arts festival, Current, the trade publication for public broadcasting, also quoted John Wilson, PBS's chief programmer, as pointing out that major donors to public broadcasting often give money "not only because they're interested in the arts but also because they believe in the role that PBS plays in the arts. They are really committed to getting that content in front of large audiences. That's what can motivate major donors at both national and local levels. We didn't see that as a prime reason for the arts festival," Wilson added, "but more as an opportunity that if we put a spotlight on arts content, we can hopefully create not only a reason for viewers to find that content but also help make supporting the arts even easier for major donors and foundations."

So, You Ask:

What does any of this have to do with the ombudsman? It is this:

For the last couple of years, one of the biggest stories in the art world — one that is actually still, but barely, unfolding — has been the bitter controversy within the artistic and legal communities over moving the world famous Barnes collection of paintings from its unique and original home in a residential section of the Philadelphia suburb of Merion into a new, decidedly modern facility about five miles away in the heart of Philadelphia's museum district next year.

Some background: This is not your father's art collection. The Barnes collection includes some 800 paintings — 181 by Renoir, 69 Cézannes, 46 Picassos, 59 Matisses, plus scores of others by Modigliani, Monet, Degas, van Gogh and others — valued at about $25 billion. It is, as the New York Times describes it, one of the world's largest assemblages of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings.

Barnes%20Foundation.jpg Jessica Griffin/AP

The collection of Albert C. Barnes, and the foundation that also bears his name, is housed, since 1922, in an unusual, slightly eccentric-feeling building that The Washington Post describes as "a charmingly shabby jewel box crammed with paintings and artifacts that Barnes hung himself to impart his ideas about artistic influences across eras and cultures." I visited the collection three or four years ago and find that description quite accurate.

Barnes died in 1951 and left very specific instructions in his will — or indenture of trust to be honored in perpetuity after his death — that did not allow the art works to be lent, sold or moved. But aspects of those provisions have been successfully challenged in courts and eroded for many years and in many ways.

You Can Look It Up

This is far too long and complicated a story to tell here, and there are logical arguments on both sides of the question about whether the collection should be moved. On one side are those outraged over the loss of Barnes' wishes, vision, home, purpose and experience in viewing this art. On the other are those who see a vastly larger new home in Philadelphia's Center City that will make the collection more accessible to more people, and as the only way to save the struggling foundation financially.

There have also been scores, probably hundreds, of sometimes lengthy and detailed articles and opinion pieces about this controversy in major newspapers, magazines and websites. There was a major and hard-hitting documentary film that first appeared late in 2009 called "The Art of the Steal" that was widely reviewed and also widely viewed as favoring opponents of the move, such as the Friends of the Barnes Foundation. Nevertheless, many of those reviews were generally favorable and the film attracted considerable acclaim at festivals in Toronto and New York.

But, despite all this attention to a fascinating controversy, there has been essentially nothing on PBS television.

So, one question is why PBS, which does indeed have a strong commitment to the arts, didn't attempt to cover this, or find a producer to document it, in any substantial way? There were, naturally, many relatively brief spot news reports about specific developments in the story over the years that appeared on WHYY, the PBS member station in Philadelphia. But there is nothing beyond those local reports about a local story that I can point to, and no in-depth program for national distribution by any PBS entity.

Another question is even more difficult. Is the broader PBS silence in any way reflective of the fact that two powerful, institutional forces in Philadelphia — the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg Foundation, who were important advocates, fundraisers and financial backers supporting the move of the collection to Philadelphia — are also important financial contributors to various PBS offerings?

The Lone Ranger, Again

I didn't think about these questions on my own. Indeed, I wasn't aware that PBS, in all its breadth of programming, hadn't really covered this except for the local station. But as often happens, one viewer called it to my attention; it's what I've called, in some previous columns, the Lone Ranger effect.

Here's a letter from Andrew S. Weiss of Margaretville, N.Y.:

"I have a comment and some questions regarding the journalistic integrity of PBS. I recently visited the magnificent Barnes Foundation and was told the very disturbing story of how the Barnes Indenture of Trust has been broken and decimated over the past several years in order to take control of it and move it into central Philadelphia into a situation and under conditions specifically prohibited by Dr. Barnes.

"Among the major players who have led the effort to break the trust and control the collection are the Pew Charitable Trust and the Annenberg Foundation. The history of this effort is well documented in 'The Art of the Steal', a documentary film produced a few years ago. The film documents some of the shadier and unethical means employed to get control of the collection. I know that the Pew Charitable Trusts is a major supporter/funder of PBS and I think that the Annenberg Foundation is too. When I did a search for 'Barnes Foundation' on the PBS web site there was no evidence that PBS has ever touched this story. If that is so, it is shocking and leads to the inevitable question: Has PBS avoided this incredibly important story in order to avert the anger of some of its important foundation supporters?"

Here Are Some Responses

When I asked officials at Thirteen/WNET in New York about the questions raised by Weiss about lack of coverage, and the role of the PBS supporters, Jane Buckwalter, director of programming operations, told me: "WNET's Need To Know series is the only program produced by us that might possibly have covered this issue; however, due to budget reductions, Culture & Arts stories are no longer covered by the program. Thirteen's SundayArts series (limited to local broadcast) covers Culture & Arts but only on a New York metro area basis. This question is best addressed by the local Philadelphia PBS station, WHYY."

As I mentioned earlier, WHYY's arts correspondent did cover news developments steadily because it's a local story as well, but again, and as far as I can tell, there was no full, in-depth treatment. I wrote to him asking if he could offer insight into why there was no PBS coverage elsewhere and whether WHYY engaged in any more in-depth coverage that I missed. No answer yet.

At the NewsHour, Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, who covers many subjects including the arts, said he and Executive Producer Linda Winslow both had similar recollections. As Brown put it: "I can tell you that we didn't do it simply because we (I) never got around to it. I've followed it some and wanted to get to it but for whatever reason (resources, timing, other news) just never did. Nothing more or less than that. It's definitely a good and important story and one I'm sorry we didn't do. I thought we'd missed our moment but frankly haven't checked in with it for a while."

That sounded to me like a candid explanation from a busy correspondent within a busy newsroom.

The top gun at PBS on programming is Senior Vice President John Wilson. In response to my questions, Wilson explained: "In addition to the fact that PBS is not a producer, we rely on news producers to ascertain the merits of specific issues. Our producers know that they are free to take on any topic that appeals to their interest and news judgment, as long as they meet PBS' editorial standards. Editorial independence is the cornerstone of PBS' mission, and it's the key reason producers want to work with us."

That's all true, but it seems to me somebody should have suggested such a program.

The Film and NPR

To its credit, NPR (nee National Public Radio) has covered the controversy and reviewed the film. In February, critic Joel Rose, on the All Things Considered program, said: "Depending on whom you ask, the 'Art of the Steal' is either a searing expose about the biggest art heist of the young century, or two hours of half-baked conspiracy theories."

And early this month, Rose bid farewell to the collection in its suburban home in another piece on NPR that's worth a listen.

The film, which I haven't seen, is highly critical of the reported role of Pew and other foundations, and Rose, to his credit, points out in his review that Pew is also an NPR financial supporter and partner. He interviews Pew CEO Rebecca Rimel, who declined to be interviewed for the film, but describes the conspiracy plot to Rose as "fiction." Rose reports that "Rimel says the Barnes Foundation came to her looking for help — end of story."

Pew has a FAQ section about its "role in the Barnes Foundation move" on its website.

Hard to Make a Case Other Than Dropping the Ball

There is no evidence that I could find, in what is just a surface search thus far, that officials from Pew or Annenberg leaned on PBS not to cover or investigate this saga beyond the unavoidable local coverage by WHYY. That would be hard to document even if it were true.

Also virtually impossible to know is whether any officials at PBS, without any prodding from contributors, figured it best not to cover this in any depth or nationally because the role of these foundations was sharply criticized publicly and in the film by opponents of the move.

Personally, I'm inclined to accept a couple of clichés — that the ball simply got dropped or the idea, if there ever was one, fell through the cracks. But it is troubling, and I'm pleased to air Weiss' questions publicly and within PBS.

The last visitors to the art hanging in the old Barnes Foundation home came in early July. It is shut down now. The collection is being moved. But the opposition hasn't quit and there is a hearing set for Aug. 1 to hear oral arguments about a petition to re-open the case.

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