The Art of the Steal

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Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

Though The Art Of the Steal gives lip-service to the city of Philadelphia and to the art mavens and corporate culture that -- according to the film -- have stolen the entire Barnes Collection away from its rightful owners and placed it in the hands of sleazebag "connoisseurs," its heart and mind are firmly with the original Barnes Foundation and Albert C. Barnes who began it. This is the man, after all, who managed to amass a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art that is now valued at more than 25 billion dollars.

Director & cinematographer Don Argott went to school in Philadelphia and so would seem to know the byways (and alleyways) of big business, fund raisers and local cultural figures and politicians. He puts all of this to good use in his documentary, one of the most anger-producing films I’ve has seen in some time. All right: it's not dolphin slaughter we're viewing, or that Texas-based cancer-curing Dr. Burzynski, who the medical establishment wants to put out of business. But if you care anything about art, law, the concept of ownership and the right to bequeath one's estate, then The Art of the Steal should make you sit up, take notice and wrestle with ideas regarding justice, right and wrong that are front and center in this estimable documentary.

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The real question remaining at the end of the film's 101 fast-paced minutes is this: Whatever Albert Barnes may have wanted done with his fabulous collection which he tried to make crystal clear and beyond refuting in his will, if a larger portion of the general public will have the opportunity to see this art via its upcoming move to the city of Philadelphia (something Barnes was dead set against), does this mean that it is all right to "steal" the collection from under the very foundation that supposedly owns it?

There are plenty of people who say yes to this -- most of them connected, I believe, to the museum circuit and who are already involved with major fund-raising, exhibits, and the like -- who feel that, where art is concerned, numbers are all. Barnes, as the film makes clear, did not agree. While he was happy to see that a local plumber who requested a visit to the collection got one, he would as quickly reject the request of the art critic for The New York Times. This did not endear him to the powers-that-be, most especially Philadelphia's famous Annenberg family, that was among his most vituperative enemies.

Argot's film shows us the history of Barnes and his collection and how the founder wanted it to be used first to further the education of the art students at his school. Over the decades, however, it became more accessible to the general public, rightly so. What we learn from the movie is how a combination of politicians, fund-raisers and society folk conspired to wrest control of the art -- and succeeded in this. We learn a number of do's and do not's: how to increase and then stack your "Board" and how to bury, before the fact, a large amount of money in the city budget that might, were its existence known, have scotched the deal.

We meet a lot of interesting people on both sides of the contest (such as Nick Tinari; almost none of the pro-Philadelphia group would agree to be interviewed) and witness the betrayals -- big and small, accidental and not so -- that result in this miscarriage. Argot lays out his thesis carefully and clearly, and while you never doubt where his sympathies lie, it is difficult to come away from this film without feeling that a grave injustice has been done to both Barnes and his collection.

I come from a time when I recall going to museums -- any museum -- and being able to sit quietly and commune with the painting or sculpture rather than with the noisy crowd that is blocking the view. Is this an elitist stance? So be it. The media-hyped circuses that pass for museum shows today certainly do bring in the crowds. But something has been lost, and I think Albert Barnes would understand this quite well, had he lived to see it. He was a smart enough man, misanthrope though he may have been (yet can anyone be called a misanthrope who dedicates his life to art and supports a school dedicated to this?) to have never allowed to happen what is now in the works.

See this masterful film and you'll come away with a keener understanding of exactly how power and money collude to control art, just as they do to control most else.

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