In 1922, Dr. Albert Barnes established the Barnes Foundation to preserve his significant art collection. He stipulated that his collection, housed in a mansion a few miles outside Philadelphia, never be sold, moved or loaned.
But that didn’t stop the powers that be from trying to do all three.
In “The Art of the Steal,” a documentary now in theaters, art takes a backseat to politics as director Don Argott spins a suspenseful tale about the fate of Barnes’ multibillion dollar collection.
Virtually any documentary about recent events, with good guys and bad guys, is subject to controversy, and “Steal” is no exception.
The documentary’s tagline is, “The true story of a multi-billion dollar art heist and how they got away with it.” Clearly, the film takes a point of view (i.e., Barnes’ collection was basically stolen), and one of the criticisms has been that it doesn’t include other points of view. True – it really doesn’t, but ostensibly it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as intertitles tell us that certain individuals declined to participate.
Barnes grew up poor in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia, but he became a doctor-scientist who made a fortune by inventing the antiseptic drug Argyrol. He eventually took to serious art collecting, acquiring more Cezannes than all of Paris, for example.
He grouped the artwork in his mansion for a unique aesthetic experience. It was a personal collection, in the deepest sense of the word.
But Barnes was not only a loose cannon purchasing art and competing with museums; he was also caustic.
“Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum,” he opined. Thumbing his nose at Philadelphia’s established world of art and commerce, he made enemies at the local paper, in local politics.
And when he died in a car accident in the early 1950s, his monumental collection appeared in the crosshairs of his enemies. Machinations in the foundation’s board of trust, manipulation of a small African-American institution with an interest in the collection, claims about the foundation’s dire financial situation – all this and much, much more ensued in the coming decades.
Director Argott tells the story, based on John Anderson’s book, “Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection,” deftly and entertainingly.
Argott parades numerous interviewees in front of the camera, including author Anderson, to help tell the story of “cultural vandalism,” as one calls it. Conspiratorial melodies reminiscent of Philip Glass’ score for the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War” bed the piece, which also features some old photographs and home movies of Barnes.
But mostly, Barnes is presented here without a voice himself – part of the point of “Steal.” Its central contention is that the man’s wishes have been trampled, ignored, discarded.
As one protestor screams at the elites making a play for the Barnes collection: “Have fun now! Wait till it’s your will!” What makes it even funnier is that the protestor – also an interviewee – dares to call them Philistines.
If you don’t know the fate of the Barnes collection, you won’t find out here. But “The Art of the Steal,” to the extent that it’s true, is outrageous. But what about the extent to which it’s true?
Various folks are implicated in shady deals and behavior that is off the level. These individuals include high-society types in Philadelphia and, get this, Pew Charitable Trusts. Others do appear in the documentary and seemingly take it on the chin: Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Barnes Foundation president Richard Glanton.
But the “bad guys” have their own story, saying “Steal” is “built upon a series of misstatements of fact and innuendo.”
Author Anderson subscribes to the conspiracy theory, however, saying in the film, “It’s fair to say there was a vast conspiracy to move the Barnes.”
The documentary’s first half is more elemental and easier to follow, as the struggle for the Barnes collection is couched in personal terms, personal enemies, personal vendettas. In the film’s second half, the conflict evolves beyond personal conflicts and into corporate dealings, with state budgets and federal applications appearing onscreen. As such, the drama is a bit more complex.
Nevertheless, the film is highly watchable and requires no knowledge of art to appreciate because, again, it’s about politics, not art. And one way or another, “The Art of the Steal” is a sad story because even priceless art … comes with a price.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s note: A swear word or two.
Director: Don Argott
The movie’s Web site is here.