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Sometimes Building Ivory Towers, Sometimes Knocking Castles Down

By Seth Freilich | Film | April 12, 2010 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | April 12, 2010 |

The Art of the Steal, as we’re told early in the film, is about “the scandal of the art world in modern America.” To fully appreciate the context of the film and the art heist it details, you’ll have to indulge a minor history lesson about Dr. Albert Barnes and his foundation. Dr. Barnes was born to a working class family in Philadelphia in the late 1800s. After studying chemistry, he developed an antiseptic which, among other things, prevented mothers from passing STDs along to their newborn infants. As such, it was a huge success, and he became madly wealthy. With his new-found wealth, Barnes moved into the art world. He began purchasing paintings, educating himself about art and hanging out with the likes of Matisse and Picasso. Over time, Barnes became a heavy critic of the typical approach to art history, including the museum establishment (which in part had to do with a deeply ingrained blue roots distrust for the upper class which he was now a member of). He preferred a more aesthetic and personal approach to the viewing and appreciation of art.

From this philosophy was The Barnes Foundation born. The purpose of this foundation, was to allow people to have a more personal interaction with his collection — art was not arranged by artist or year, and did not have curatorial placards telling the viewer the import of the piece. Rather, pieces were arranged in a way to show a greater aesthetic design, a design which incorporated furniture, hinges and other non-paintings. Barnes was primarily interested in teaching art history and appreciation in a new way, and while the Foundation was a museum in the colloquial sense, it was first and foremost a school. As such, access to the collection was kept very limited for a long time, to the extreme agitation of the art establishment, and even when the general public was finally allowed through the doors, it was on a very limited basis (only on certain days of the week, only a certain number of people at a time or per day, etc.). Barnes also set up a trust for the Foundation, funded by some of his wealth, and the written trust included several restrictions about what could and couldn’t be done with the art, including that the art could never be loaned or taken on the road, and that the Foundation could never move from its Lower Merion home (he had built the Foundation in this Philadelphia suburb to keep it away from the capital-E establishment in Philadelphia).

Since the day the Foundation was established, folks have tried to move it to Philadelphia. But things really heated up about ten years ago, and that is the core battle on which The Art of the Steal focuses. Specifically, after fleshing out the background information, the film focuses on the series of political machinations and legal antics which have allowed Barnes’ trust to be slowly chipped away to the point that, in or about 2012, the Lower Merion building will be closing, with the art moving to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, right down the street from the Philadelphia Art Museum. There are those who think this is a boon for the art world, and those who think it’s an abomination, with the new location being akin to a McBarnes (for the purpose of full disclosure, I should be clear that I have a personal and fairly vehement opposition to the move). While the filmmakers are clearly of the view that this is a travesty and make no bones about hiding it, they do give the move’s proponents an opportunity to share their own point of view. In fact, the filmmakers managed to obtain a great amount of access to most of the major players on both sides of the move (at least, those who are still alive), and every time you find yourself wondering why someone isn’t featured in a talking head, the film is sure to tell you that it’s because they declined to participate (likely because they knew what the film’s perspective was going to be, and didn’t fancy being an onscreen villain).

I came into this film with a keen interest in the topic, having followed much of the news regarding all this over the past decade. But I get that most folks don’t know spit about this subject, and more generally see art history and appreciation as an incredibly dry subject. Which is why I have to tip my hat to director Don Argott, because even if you don’t give a flip about Barnes or art, the film does a particularly good job at being both accessible and engaging. Of course, the film does not actually focus on the art itself very much, which is by far its primary weakness — the viewer is essentially asked to take it on faith that this approach to art is important, and that something will be lost in the collection’s move, even though those in charge purport to intend to keep the art arranged as it is in Lower Merion.

While some of the talking heads in the film tend to be a little on the drier side, they’re countered by the stronger personalities of others, and the dark humor that occasionally peeks its head up (particularly when folks throw out barbs and slings about the perceived major villains behind this move). Argott also avoids the trappings that many documentaries like this have by wisely keeping himself out of the documentary. Instead, he lets the players tell the story, and uses his own narrative and directorial skills to focus and move the story. The resulting film is funny, fascinating and sad, and while it will certainly be of interest to anyone into political machinations, it is accessible and entertaining enough that anyone who likes a good documentary will enjoy it. It really is a fascinating story, and even with an obvious and skewed perspective, Argott and The Art of the Steal do it justice.

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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