More than 50 years ago, Lincoln University President Horace Mann Bond helped the historically black college gain control of a world-famous art collection.
Now his son -- NAACP Chairman Julian Bond -- is fighting a court petition that would dilute Lincoln's influence over the Barnes Foundation, whose collection is worth billions of dollars.
"People . . . could easily look at it and say, 'Here are rich white interests seizing control of this billion-dollar asset from this tiny, impecunious black college,' " Bond said in a recent interview.
In a Jan. 10 letter written on behalf of Lincoln, Bond said the court petition, which seeks to move the art collection and eliminate Lincoln's majority on the Barnes board of trustees, could be seen by some as "racially hostile."
Bond's letter was sent to three charitable foundations -- the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lenfest Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation -- that have agreed to support the Barnes while its court petition is being considered.
"I cannot understand why Lincoln's trust-mandated role and your support for this great art collection should be mutually exclusive," the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote.
The cash-strapped Barnes Foundation wants to move its collection of Cezannes, Picassos, Renoirs and van Goghs from a Philadelphia suburb to the city so that it can attract more patrons and shore up its shaky finances.
Such a move is forbidden by the intricate will left by Albert C. Barnes in 1951; the document also empowered Lincoln University to nominate four of the foundation's five trustees, and required his $10 million endowment -- which ran out in 1999 -- to be invested in conservative, low-yielding government securities.
The proposal submitted by the foundation in Montgomery County Orphans' Court would move the art and increase the number of trustees to 15, with Lincoln still nominating four. Kimberly Camp, the Barnes's executive director, said the board of trustees needs to be expanded to help the foundation raise the millions of dollars it needs to stay afloat.
"The expansion of the board is not any attempt to dilute anyone's power. It is an attempt to have the Barnes be the self-sufficient organization that Dr. Barnes wanted," she said.
Barnes chose Lincoln to oversee his foundation because of his friendship with Bond's father and because he disliked the Philadelphia arts establishment, Julian Bond said. The school was founded in 1854.
Horace Mann Bond had befriended Barnes, a self-made millionaire and insatiable collector who started his namesake organization 80 years ago to help working-class people understand and appreciate art.
"I met Dr. Barnes when I was a kid and I knew the relationship between Dr. Barnes and my father," Bond said. "The idea that this arrangement could be cast aside is tremendously objectionable to me."
If a judge approves the Barnes Foundation's request, Pew and Lenfest have promised to help the Barnes raise $150 million to construct a new building in Philadelphia's museum district and establish a substantial endowment. All three foundations have also agreed to give the Barnes $3.1 million over two years to keep it afloat while the court petition is considered.
Bond said the foundations have not responded to his letter or to his offer to meet with them. Through a spokeswoman, Gail Levin, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation, declined to comment. Representatives of Pew and Lenfest had no immediate comment, saying they hadn't seen Bond's letter.