The Art of the Steal (2009)

Written by:
SCA Schulman
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The Art of the Steal (2009)

Art of the Steal

Director and Cinematographer: Don Argott
Run Time: 101 minutes

The story of the art collection of Albert C. Barnes is about money, race, politics, art and the last wishes of an eccentric man. This explosive combination has been the subject of books, lawsuits, a play and now an absorbing documentary, The Art of the Steal.

Some numbers. The Barnes Collection is estimated to be worth $25-30 billion dollars. It contains 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 11 Degas, 7 van Goghs etc. It is commonly described as one of the finest art collections in the world.

The Art of the Steal does a very good job of explaining the complex set of circumstances and lawsuits that surround the Collection. In addition, the movie was less biased than I expected it to be. Don’t get me wrong–it is extremely one-sided. Yet the filmmakers managed to include a bit of nuance. Near the end, the movie unnecessarily doubles-back on itself, going over ground we have already covered. As well, I do not mind the talking head style, but here the talking heads repeat the same ideas without adding anything new. Overall however, if you have any interest in the subject, you will find this movie informative and enjoyable.

Albert C. Barnes was an unusual man for his time. He started his life working class, got an M.D. and made a fortune in the early 1900’s by inventing a new type of antiseptic. In 1922 he established the Barnes Foundation. He was interested in “modern” styles of art when almost no one else was.

Barnes did everything he could to ensure that that his collection was to remain permanently housed in the building in suburban Philadelphia he bought for that purpose. It was never to be moved, lent, sold or even loaned out to other museums. He wanted it to be used for primarily educational purposes, which is why the general public was to be restricted in its ability to view the art and why Lincoln University, a small African-American college, was to be trustee.

Barnes and his wife never had any children. As this documentary makes clear, because Barnes had no heirs, after his death powerful interests began the process of trying to gain control of this art. Some of these interests were Pennsylvania politicians who saw the art as a tourist draw. Others were snobbish and rich newspapermen who Barnes angered during his lifetime. Still others were wealthy Pennsylvania foundations who used their money as a way to gain power in the arts world.

Over the last fifty years, with their combined influence, these groups have managed to circumvent Barnes’ explicit last wishes. Instead of the art being used for educational purposes and the collection never moving from where he placed it, a museum is being built in downtown Philadelphia to house the Collection in a blockbuster show style and the public will be able to see the art easily. The new Barnes Foundation Philadelphia is scheduled to open in 2012.

My interest in this amazing art collection began years ago when I was unable to view the collection because of the extremely tight restrictions and very limited viewing times. My interest continued when I saw the play “Permanent Collection” by Thomas Gibbons at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater in 2006, which was inspired by the issues surrounding this collection. Seeing the art in this documentary and on the website is still the closest I’ve ever gotten to it.

Barnes bought this art and had the right to do anything he wanted with it. It is clear Barnes unequivocally did not want his collection to be displayed to the public in a big fancy downtown Philadelphia museum. He felt that his art should be used for education and not merely for the public to gawk at. In spite of knowing that all of his wishes are being dishonored I have to say–I can’t wait until I get the chance to see this fabulous art.

SCA Schulman
© SCA Schulman 2010

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