Is The Barnes Noble?

The controversy surrounding the quirky Barnes Foundation could have resulted in more than just the exhibition of 80 of its best paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from May 2 until Aug. 15. It might have made a passable docudrama airing on, say, the mythical Arts & Litigation network, in the not-too-distant future. Call it "Clouded Tour: Showdown at the Barnes." And review it like this:

In 1951, crusty, self-made millionaire Albert Coombs Barnes (played by Ed Asner at his grumpiest) wanders through his foundation's private galleries in rich, fox-hunty Merion, Pa. He gazes at some of his 180 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes and 44 early Picassos. In a series of black-and-white flashbacks, Dr. Barnes fondly remembers his youthful encounters with the children of slaves and, more recently, receiving an honorary degree from nearby Lincoln University, a small traditionally black school. He recalls becoming an M.D. at 20, then earning a fortune manufacturing an antiseptic tradenamed Argyrol. And he recollects starting to collect modern French painting in 1912 and being ridiculed when he showed his pictures publicly. He rubs his hands and vows that after his death the majority of the foundation's board will be chosen by Lincoln. He pledges that none of his paintings will ever be reproduced in vulgar full color. And his lips move with the words, "Nothing on these walls will ever be moved, let alone loaned."

Barnes heads to his Packard and drives away. The 79-year-old maverick collector doesn't notice the stop sign, and he never sees the truck. Barnes and his dog are killed instantly. The subsequent montage of spinning headlines-saying, BARNES FOUNDATION SUED (1952), JUDGE ORDERS BARNES ART OPEN TO PUBLIC (1961) and BARNES ART GALLERY OPENS FOR 1ST PUBLIC VIEW TODAY (1961)--isn't very subtle. But neither was Barnes.

Cut to 40 years later. "Clouded Tour" suddenly bursts into the color Barnes forbade for reproductions. Outspoken Georgia-raised lawyer (and new president of the Barnes Foundation board of trustees) Richard Glanton (Danny Glover) arrives at the offices of about-to-retire National Gallery of Art director J. Carter Brown (Jeremy Irons in his smoothest performance since "Reversal of Fortune"). As the camera focuses on a mahogany door, we hear muffled dialogue about megacollector Walter Annenberg's having asked the two to get together. (Annenberg gave his impressionists to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991 and knows his way around the corridors of power.) Brown and Glanton discuss the foundation's deteriorating Renaissance-style buildings, water damage to the walls and danger to the priceless paintings. Yes, but going to court for permission to sell art to repair the place was a major public-relations error, scolds Brown. The two men agree that an exhibition at the NGA and an international tour of museums willing to pay big bucks for the show just might raise the $7 million needed to rehab the foundation. Cut to a courtroom, where Judge Louis D. Stefan announces that a "serendipitous circumstance has presented itself." He rules that art from the Barnes may travel this one time only. As Glanton steers his Mercedes back toward Merion, he has a smile on his face. But it turns to a stony frown when he's met at the 12-acre foundation's iron front gate by a gaggle of protesting students from the Barnes's education program. "You just want to be senator or governor of Pennsylvania! You care only about Lincoln University, not the Barnes!" they shout.

Here, the film erupts into a free-for-all of attorneys, art historians, dealers and some Barnesian traditionalists all heatedly debating the issues raised by the tour and closing of the galleries for construction: Are the relative handful of students in the foundation's unaccredited art-appreciation classes being sacrificed in favor of greedy fund raising? Would Barnes himself ever have approved sending van Gogh's exquisitely intense "The Postman Roulin" (1889) or Matisse's almost psychedelic "The Joy of Life" (1905-06) on a perilous two-year journey to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and perhaps additional venues? Or would he have just sat on an endowment that never grew and allowed the foundations decrepit roof to fall in on his treasures?

Danny De Vito (as publishing magnate S. I. Newhouse) provides the one comic moment amid all this lawyering with his wink when he writes out a $700,000 advance against royalties as his company, Alfred A. Knopf, wins the right to publish the catalog to "Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation. "Flash-cut to a smiling Glanton, thanking Newhouse for his $2 million gift to Lincoln University. "Clouded Tour" ends ambiguously, with a huge cargo 747 lifting off from Dulles airport, heading for Paris. As current NGA director Earl (Rusty) Powell (William Hurt) watches anxiously, we listen to a voice-over of French air-traffic controllers trying to land a jumbo jet with a conked-out engine in a thunderstorm. As the screen fades to black, we learn the flight has managed to land ... barely ... safely. It's unclear, though, whether this Cassandra climax is a figment of tour opponents' imaginations, or the dreaded worst-case scenario almost come true.

If this imaginary film doesn't come right out and say whether the Barnes art leaving Merion is a good thing or not, it's because it's a complicated issue. People on both sides--Glanton, his critics, NGA officials and assorted experts--often render themselves a bit contradictory, or a little disingenuous. For instance, Columbia University art historian James Beek, founder of Artwatch International, a group that purports to "speak for works of art, which have no voice," says 'I don't think this is about democratizing things. I think [the issue of putting the Barnes art before hundreds of thousands of viewers] is a red herring. Art exhibitions are not for the mass public." In the next minute he complains, "There's no control on the NGA; it's paid for by tax dollars but it's not really accountable to anyone." And although J. Carter Brown says there's "tremendous pent-up demand" to see the Barnes art on view outside Merion, he claims it never occurred to a bashful NGA to ask for a show.

Glanton, for his part, is bruisingly frank about the fact that the Barnes originally came looking for Lincoln U (for whom he is still general counsel) and not the reverse. "We have an incomparably great collection of pictures, and that commands attention," he says. "Without these pictures, nobody would give a damn [about the connection with Lincoln U]. But the fact of the matter is that we have them." Whether the Arts & Litigation network will be able to produce a peaceful sequel, "Homecoming in Merion: The Safe Return of Vincent and Henri," is still up in the air. Consult your local listings.