The Art of the Steal, The Untold Story of the Barnes Foundation
Pennsylvania’s Barnes Museum and its legally questionable and morally objectionable dismantling form the basis for director and cinematographer Don Argott’s fascinating documentary “The Art of the Steal” opening February 26 IFC Center in New York. “The Art of the Steal” is an engrossing, outrageous, infuriating, harrowing ride through the modern art world where art vs. commerce, big money, political corruption, endowments, a decaying building, the will and intentions of a deceased founder and a proposed “legal” daylight robbery all clash.
“More Cezannes than the Louvre,” “The greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II,” “The Scandal of the modern art world,” are some of the quotes about the Barnes Foundation and those who would exploit it that open the film. Perhaps the most interesting quote is from Henri Matisse: “The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America.”
Dr. Albert C. Barnes created the Barnes Foundation in 1922. The foundation is an educational institution whose mainstay is an incredible, one of a kind, collection of Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings, whose worth is now in the billions. The Barnes Foundation is located in Lower Merion Pennsylvania, a suburb five miles from the City of Philadelphia. Although a prominent and visionary art collector, Barnes came from a working class background which he never forgot. He was a misanthrope with a long memory who had nothing but disdain for the cultural elite. As a result Barnes was more likely to allow a plumber into his museum than an art critic. The Barnes Foundation displayed its art in small intimate rooms where it could be appreciated in an idyllic setting. Barnes intended for his foundation to be primarily for education but a few days a week would allow visitors in by appointment only. Barnes died in a car accident in 1951. In his will were strict instructions that his foundation was to remain as it was and that no artwork was to be removed. He left control of his collection to Lincoln University, a small African American college, perhaps as a final dig at the cultural elite. Now fifty years later the cultural elite are using legal and political maneuvers to take the Barnes collection and move it to a new museum in Philadelphia where it will become a mass marketed museum show, exactly what Barnes did not want. Barnes’ supporters and former students try to stop what they see as a desecration.
I have said many times in this column that my litmus test for a good documentary is one that can take a subject about which I have little knowledge or interest and make it compelling. “The Art of the Steal” accomplishes this by its terrific filmmaking. It is a well paced tightly told story which intelligently integrates interviews, Barnes’ home movies, news footage, voice overs and a real appreciation of the beautiful artwork itself.
The film’s visual design and sharp cinematography are very reminiscient of the innovative work of documentarian Errol Morris without ever becoming derivative. To make his points visually Argott uses close ups of typewriter keys, the inner workings of a VCR, shots of legal documents with animated lines crossing off sentences as the powers-that-be dilute the foundation’s power. All of this seen over a music score that is alternately anxious and haunting, with many pieces by composer Philip Glass, make “The Art of the Steal” a breathless and important work.
The Art of the Steal, director Dan Argott 2009, IFC Films, 101 minutes