Jewish World Review June 8, 2005 / 1 Sivan
Respect and disrespect
What do these names have in common Alice Walton, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Albert C. Barnes and Charles Robertson?
Each of these American philanthropists set out to make a difference a distinctive, personal difference that would shape the future.
Alice Walton's striking vision, to be called Crystal Bridges, is to be built here in Arkansas. The plans for it have just been unveiled, but it's already clear that it'll be an American landmark. Miss Alice's splendid collection of American art will be housed in a work of art itself, designed by Moshe Safdie and set in a natural ravine surrounded by 120 acres of parkland and unspoiled countryside.
Call it a collaboration of man and Nature. Well, make that woman and nature.
Like every deed of trust, Alice Walton's gift is also an act of trust in those who will be its stewards. But will future generations be true to the crystal spirit of her gift? They say history is a guide to the future, so let's note how the legacies of those other far-seeing benefactors have fared.
First the success story: The Gardner Museum in Boston remains remarkably like the sight that greeted Isabella Stewart Gardner's guests the night she threw open the great doors Jan. 1, 1903 and revealed the dream she'd been working on for years behind its high gray walls. Inside there was a Venetian palace transported stone by stone to Brahmin Boston, and filled with her eclectic, still riveting collection of masterpieces.
Mrs. Gardner would will her home to the people of Boston with the most specific instructions: Nothing nothing was to be changed. Little has been in the old museum, although there has been disturbing talk of an elaborate modernization.
To this day, the Gardner remains one of the few museums in the country without an officious plaque by each work of art telling the viewer exactly what to think of it. The interior courtyard is still planted in flowers in their due season, affording guests a different perspective from each of the villa's three floors. The music of Bach, Mozart and Schumann may still be heard in the great hall.
To this day, to visit the Gardner is to be a guest in the lady's home. It remains a refuge from superficial, stylish fashionable modernity, an experience across time.
Albert C. Barnes was just as distinctive and idiosyncratic in his taste, and just as clear about what he wanted done with the superb collection of art he had acquired for his Main Line home in Merion, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He wanted it preserved as a place where "plain people, that is, men and women who make their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places" might directly experience the art he'd collected.
Dr. Barnes also knew what he didn't want a commercialized museum that would be used as a backdrop for "society functions commonly designated receptions, tea parties, dinners, banquets, dances, musicales or similar affairs . . . ."
But now that fate awaits his legacy. For the good doctor's will has been broken, and his exquisite assemblage of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings (181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses plus various Picassos and Monets and Van Goghs, among others) is to be moved to downtown Philadelphia, where it can become just another stop on museum row rather than the distinctive school of art appreciation he envisioned.
Soon enough Dr. Barnes' collection will be available for just the sort of high-society events he detested, many of them no doubt sponsored by the kind of arts establishment he abhorred.
It seems a court has dismissed the original intent of this donor as impractical and outmoded. Which is how an ignorant, arrogant present tends to think of an idealistic past.
The fund was to be used to "maintain and operate . . . as part of the Woodrow Wilson School, a Graduate School, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government . . . with particular emphasis on . . . those areas of the federal government that are concerned with international relations . . . ."
Over the years, the foundation that Charles Robertson and his wife, Marie, established has given Princeton some $300 million, but to the dismay of the family, Princeton has been using much of the money for its own purposes rather than to create a great school of foreign service.
For its part, the university claims that the Robertsons' bequest was far more general than its mere words would leave one to believe, and that Princeton should be able to go on spending those millions just as it has been.
However the courts decide this case, this much is already clear: Future donors beware. Your gift may prove someone else's bonanza.
The outcome of Robertson v. Princeton will tell us something else: how much this generation respects the past or disrespects it. Respect and disrespect for the past are really a kind of gratitude or ingratitude for those who have come before us. And a society that shows no regard for its past may not have much of a future, either.
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