Art lovers, art professionals and competing members of Philadelphia society fight over a collection of modern and post-impressionist works of art in The Art of the Steal, a fascinating documentary about sharp claws in the art world.
The Barnes Foundation houses some many billions of dollars worth of art — Renoirs, Cezannes, Manets, Monets, Van Goghs, Picassos and more. The works were collected by Albert Barnes, an up-from-his-boot-straps creator of a venereal disease medication. A contrarian-sounding man, Barnes set up his collection in a building in a Philadelphia suburb and wanted it to serve an educational purpose (not just bring in the tourists like the museums with which he had disagreements). He was picky about who could see the art and set up various legal covenants that required the art to stay where he put it.
Then in 1951 he died, and over time the integrity and location of the collection became issues of constant contention by those who sought to break up, move or send for loan the collection. The foundation was located in a residential neighborhood, making the logistics of having thousands of visitors difficult. Eventually (in the last, say 15 years), the issue became whether or not to move the collection to a newly created museum in Philadelphia (setting up a suburban-vs.-urban fight on top of everything else). Fans of the Barnes Foundation are adamant that the art should stay in the building where Barnes arranged the works with furniture and a variety of historical cultural items, such as ancient Egyptian or Roman pieces, in a building surrounded by a garden. Barnes wanted the art to be part of an educational experience and not part of the art establishment. Politicians and others saw the moving of the Barnes as a boon for Philadelphia tourism.
And then, of course, there’s the control of something worth billions.
The movie sets it up as a fight of one scrappy art lover and his students versus a moneyed class of art professionals and politicians. Leaving aside the question at hand for a moment: If you want to know why, for example, your city can’t build a performing arts center (or, for that matter, a dog park), this movie explains it. Money, politics, people with ideas and people with a cause — the mix can turn even generally agreed-upon good projects into a quagmire.
The validity of points of the opposing sides in the Barnes fight isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the big honking, entertaining mess that is everything from Barnes’ own initial clashes with wealthy Philadelphians (including the Annenberg family in charge of the Philadelphia Inquirer) to the court case brought by boosters of the original Barnes location to attempt to get a reconsideration of the move.
Economic development, cultural prize, bragging rights and charitable foundation muscle are all at issue, as are issues of history, tradition and the strength of one rich person’s wishes as spelled out in his will.
Though the movie clearly has a side — that of keeping Barnes’ art where he put it — it does a good job of showing all sides (public, private, legal, political) of how big institutions act. As someone who has sat through public meetings on issues far less fraught, I appreciated how messy this fight became and how much mess the movie shows us.
Whether the movie makes its argument successfully is less interesting to me — and less certain. If you agree going in to the film that the moving of the Barnes collection is a horror, you’re likely to keep on believing that. If you go in with little or no background, it’s likely you’ll find some eye-roll-worthy “why I never” haughiness on all sides.
Like a planning board meeting with beautiful paintings, The Art of the Steal is a great exploration of the not-so-pretty business of building and running cultural institutions. B-
Not rated. Directed by Don Argott, The Art of the Steal is an hour and 41 minutes long and distributed by IFC Films.