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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Philly Philanthropists Reach Out to Israel

'New' Israel Museum is Beneficiary

By Richard Carreño
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
The Art of the Steal, a 2009 'mockmentary' by local director Don Argott, putatively uncovered how the Barnes Foundation was 'stolen' by Philadelphia's Establishment power brokers who, working as a secretive cabal of evil, decreed that the museum move from his established home in suburban Philadelphia to a new venue on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. All that was missing was, cackle, cackle, a witches' brew.

Amid a din-din-din Jaws-like musical leitmotif, the film was more creepy conspiracy than well-crafted agit-prop, a la Michael Moore. Moreover, Steal's theme, how the will and wishes of the foundation's eponymous founder Dr. Albert G. Barnes, were being thwarted by Gov. Edward Rendell, the Pew Charitable Trusts, tourism interests, and other Satanic forces has been oft-repeated, and, by now, a tiresome conceit. Boring.

Anyway, the 'new' Barnes, home to world's greatest collection of French Impressionism, is scheduled to debut next year on Museum Mile. This, despite witchcraft, or -- as more likely the case -- good stewardship by the city's arts community.

The film survives as a curiosity. As well as proof that Dr. Barnes' well-known delusional penchant to view life as a vast conspiracy is still alive in well in Philadelphia.

Otherwise, The Art of the Steal is mostly forgettable.

But not easily forgiven.

Regardless of its risible single-minded silliness, the film is also remarkably slimy.

This is no better highlighted than how the picture mocks Gerry Lenfest and Ray Perelman, then key board members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and prominent PMA benefactors, as 'spokes' in Philadelphia's Axis of Evil.

Lenfest is slimed with 'a powerful conflict of interest.' Perelman gets slimed as 'a nasty old man.'

A recent visit to Jerusalem, where the Israel Museum is located, was perfectly timed. Not by me. Just good fortune. The museum, an encyclopedic repository of Jewish history and art and a clear contender for membership among the world's great museums, had just reopened weeks before after a three-year renovation.

Among other reasons for my visit to Israel, I was eager to see works by Marc Chagall at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and, most important, encounter the so-called Chagall Windows at the Synagogue of the Haddassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, also in Jerusalem.

Again, my timing was fortuitous. The synagogue had also just reopened, after a year's closing forced upon it by structural work that was being undertaken at the hospital.

I was particularly struck by the Israel Museum -- and by the unexpected. Its New York-born director, James S. Snyder, whose mandate was to modernize and reorganize, has in fact recreated the just-45-year-old institution. (In 1965, the embryonic museum was the vision of Jerusalem's legendary mayor, Tedi Kolek).

'Its status and reputation is linked with what has always been a decent display of ancient and contemporary art,' Time Out Israel reported last month. 'But its old structure and outdated layout was cramped and inconvenient -- hence the decision to revamp it almost in its entirety,'

Enter Synder, 58, who joined the museum in 1996.

'...[M]any people do not know what to make of him,' The New York Times recently reported. 'He has never acquired Israeli citizenship or learned more than basic Hebrew. In a country where dressing up often means donning a clean T-shirt, he has kept the look of an Ivy League professor of a generation ago....'

Despite a traditional appearance, Synder introduced one skill to the museum that's thoroughly modern -- fundraising on a worldwide scale. The renovation budget was $100-million.

I looked up to a plaque of about about 50 names as I entered the museum. These were major contributors from around the world, and those also willing to donate $100,000 annually to the museum.

Not surprisingly, several of names were those of well-known New Yorkers.

Only one city, Philadelphia, other than New York, had more than one benefactor.

One was Gerry Lenfest. The other, Ray Perelman.