One of the greatest Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern art collections on the planet lives not in a museum, but on the grounds of the Barnes Foundation in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania. At some point in the near future, the collection will move to new digs in Philadelphia, an act in direct defiance of the wishes of the man who amassed the collection, Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Filmmaker Don Argott delves deep into this art world scandal and emerges with The Art of the Steal, a fascinating, if overlong, look at a legacy perverted. In a limited theatrical run, the doc looks to score with art lovers and conspiracy buffs alike, insuring at least modest box office numbers.
NAACP chairman Julian Bond calls the fate of Dr. Barnes' collection, "The scandal of the art world in modern America." It is hard to argue with his conclusion as Argott builds his case, step by painful step, beginning with how Barnes amassed his collection after making his fortune with a pharmaceutical breakthrough. Years before museums became serious about collecting the works of artists like Cezanne, Picasso, van Gogh and Matisse, Barnes was an avid collector. In 1922, he founded the Barnes Foundation, intending it not as a museum, but as a school with only a limited role for the public. And so it remained after his death in 1951 and through the stewardship of foundation president Violette de Mazia, but since her death in 1989, the terms of Barnes Foundation and the collection itself have been under siege.
In a way, The Art of the Steal serves as a measure of how perceptions change. When Dr. Barnes first displayed his collection publicly, an art critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer abhorred the "primitive art." The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the city's high society were equally dismissive. But Barnes' collection was not seen as folly for long and for decades, Philadelphia city leaders and other interested parties including right-wing publisher Walter Annenberg, have fought the terms of Barnes' will in order to wrest control of the art away from those to whom Barnes entrusted it.
This is a documentary full of talking heads, many of them belonging to Barnes Foundation alumni and other critics of two decades of civic shenanigans, but also including viewpoints from the other side. The documentary begins with talk of the collection's move to Philadelphia, so there is never any doubt where the story is going. The film can be dry and a little repetitive. For all of that, it still manages to generate a surprising measure of suspense and it produces outrage in abundance. The Art of the Steal is an apt title and its tale of a legalized looting and the trampling of Barnes' will resonate not just with art lovers but with anyone with a sense of fair play.
Director: Don Argott
Producer: Sheena M. Joyce
Running time: 101 min.
Release date: February 26 NY