By LIZ HAGER
Anyone who thinks that art makes a dull film subject should see “The Art of the Steal.” Last February, I was lucky enough to be at a screening at SF’s Roxy Theater with the Director Don Argott and one of his producers to field questions after the screening. In addition to a piece of enthralling storytelling, the film raises a range of moral issues that effect (and afflict) our contemporary art world. Thankfully, its release on DVD insures that it will be available to many more viewers, and hopefully not just those interested in art.
An epic story propels “The Art of the Steal.” The film chronicles a long and acrimonious battle to move the Barnes Foundation collection to downtown Philadelphia from its home in the suburban Merion. The battle took on a David & Goliath Governmental, business and some non-profits (the Pew Charitable Trust most egregiously) interests threw their considerable weight behind the effort to move the collection. A small, but vocal, group of locals mounted a grass-roots effort to block the move. Though none of the players is entirely sympathetic, by the end of the film, it’s difficult not to have taken sides, depending on where your sympathies lie in the matter of public access to art. It won’t be giving much away to say that the film itself has a considerable bias. (In the wake of Michael Moore, who thinks even-handed documentaries make for good entertainment?)
The tale begins with Alfred C. Barnes. In the first decades of the 20th century Barnes, a quirky, wealthy and largely antisocial business man (with a medical degree), assembled what is now considered to be the most important collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art (with Renaissance and African pieces to boot) anywhere. Some have estimated the current value of this collection at $25 billion.
A self-made man (and millionaire at 35), Barnes educated himself assiduously about art. During the 1910-20 period he was a passionate and energetic collector of “modern art.” No body in the film seems to dispute that Barnes truly appreciated the works for their aesthetic qualities, rather than their potential value as a financial assets.
In 1922 Barnes established his foundation in suburban Merion, PA. It was conceived as a holistic enterprise, comprised of his collection, a school (with educational program) and later an arboretum. The design of the new structure built to house the collection was very much in keeping with a mansion, the suburban equivalent of the Frick or the Morgan Library or the Gardner.
The Barnes was not conceived as a public museum (although it has always been open to the public), but as a permanent educational facility attached to a collection. The film makes it clear that Barnes located it outside of Philadelphia, in large part due to the antagonism between him and the city’s elite establishment. The collection was not hung as it would have been in a museum —i.e. chronologically or by school—but as a collector might, according to aesthetic preferences.
Barnes died in a car accident in 1951. His will stipulated that the Foundation remain intact with a Board of Trustees at its helm. Most irritatingly to the Philadelphia establishment it seems, the will was clear in its intent that the collection could not be removed from the Foundation, either temporarily (i.e. on loan for exhibitions) or permanently. For a long time under the watchful eye of his protegé, the provisions of Barnes’ will were steadfastly upheld.
At this chronological point “The Art of the Steal” kicks into overdrive, treating viewers to the devious, diabolical, and morally ambiguous ways in which the Philadelphia “oligarchy” (which included Barnes Board Trustees) began chipping away at Alfred Barnes’ will in the 1990s. The stakes were huge. As then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell states succinctly on camera: “There isn’t a couple in the U.S., or Europe, or Asia who’s interested in arts and culture, who wouldn’t come to Philadelphia for at least a long weekend [if only the Barnes collection came to the city].” One shouldn’t be surprised that pro-move interests deployed every Machiavellian tactic at their disposal.
It won’t be giving any of the viewing pleasure away to say that the opening of a new museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia is imminent. According to the press releases, the Barnes’ new home will be a two-story, 93,000-square-foot building, with an additional level below grade. The collection will be displayed in 12,000 square feet of exhibition space that replicates the scale, proportion and configuration of the original galleries in Merion. There will be a 150-seat auditorium on the lower level.
In the end, it may be that the true hero of the story is the art collection itself. Although tossed around in a long game of political ping pong, they will survive the move, their beauty as individual objets d’art intact. Still, for all of us who love the private home museums, the viewing experience just won’t be quite the same.
One last disturbing element of the film remained with me after the screening. No matter where one stands on the issues involving private collections and public museums, the indisputable and heartbreaking fact is that Barnes ultimately could not control the legacy he worked so carefully to build. Let that be the real lesson to all of us mortals—wills can be broken.
Weigh in if you have seen the movie; if not, go directly to Netflix and rent it!