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The Art of the Steal

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You will scream, "Highway robbery!" as it hits you that the villains in the provocative documentary, The Art of the Steal--about the untoward fate of a very special painting and sculpture collection--are some of the most respected arts institutions in America.

Albert C. Barnes' rise from the poorest slums of Philadelphia to developing an antiseptic drug and buying up with his fortune what is considered the best collection of post-impressionist-early modernist art is on the one hand the American Dream enacted, and on the other, in terms of how his will has been thwarted, a cynical view of how a man's legacy can be manipulated by the greedy and powerful.

The film ably limns this history, most interestingly as it shows how Barnes' collection grew, defining what was "Barnes worthy"--any old Van Gogh would not do. This man had an extraordinary eye, amassing what is now deemed the work of great masters; moreover, in 1922, he displayed the collection in unusual arrangements in the rooms of a house in suburban Merion, PA, not far enough away from Philadelphia arts society. Matisse is said to have thought the Barnes Foundation the best place to see art.

Barnes was as deliberate about the future of this work after his death and planned his estate stipulating that the foundation remain open for educational purposes only, that the collection not tour, and most important, remain intact as is.

Trouble arises soon after Barnes dies in a car accident; various factions vie for control of the prestigious and rich collection. The film thrillingly shows how key personnel disregard Barnes' intentions. Through a court system as addled as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, Barnes' advocates attempt to keep the collection where it is, as institutions like the Pew Charitable Trust seek to administer this art cache now worth an estimated $25 billion.

You wish to hear how respected museums justify their appropriation, but few agreed to be interviewed. You wish for justice, that somehow this documentary might have the Errol Morris effect, changing its future: that somehow the dismantling and moving of this valuable collection will not occur, even as construction of a new building on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway is now underway.

At the film's premiere last week--appropriately at MoMA and followed by an after party at the midtown Haunch of Venison gallery, with its views overlooking Manhattan--was attended by arts and film mavens: Lola Schnabel, Stella Schnabel, Michael Stuhlbarg, Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles and John McEnroe. Some frustration set in as the filmmakers, director Don Argott, producer Sheena Joyce, and executive producer Lenny Feinberg fielded criticism for not having interviewed the right people.

Arts journalist David D'Arcy, who appears in the film predicts the worst is yet to come for the Barnes collection: some paintings will have to be sold, enacting Albert C. Barnes' worst nightmare.

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