The Art of the Steal
A dimly-lit movie theater is the perfect venue to watch a documentary about the stealing of one man’s personal art collection and the denial of his legally-documented wishes by the Philadelphia power brokers.
Barnes was an ardent collector with a keen eye for art who felt snubbed for his vision and middle class upbringing. But his intellectual prowess expanded beyond his roots and enabled him to develop the drug Argyrol, which provided the money for traveling to Paris and collecting art. His intention, unlike many collectors, was not to amass a collection worth over $25 billion, but to purchase what he felt had the “it” factor. What he saw in the Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art that he purchased, art aficionados of the time did not.
Proffered in this celluloid mystery is Barnes’ dislike for the arts establishment arising after the first exhibition of his collection in 1923. The critics’ malicious reviews drove the nails into the coffin as Barnes determined to never allow Philadelphia to touch his art. So he placed his collection in Lower Merion Township, a residential neighborhood, and locked it up in legal jargon and a tidy endowment, opening it only to those he chose to benefit from it.
But upon his death, the society that he rejected pried his cold, dead hands from every piece they initially dismissed as worthless.
The battle is seen through the eyes of passionate artists, instructors and students of the demolished educational institution, and the foundation that Barnes created around his art collection to educate the underprivileged.
Though clearly one-sided, this film sheds light on the grittier aspects of art as currency through this individual as the villains’ deeds are uncovered through discordant information gleaned from witnesses, legal documents, and old news interviews. Those called out by the Barnes’ Foundation’s friends for engaging in this shameful endeavor include well-moneyed socialites, politicians, a private foundation and even a judge. The film flickers its light upon documented facts that are verbally denied and ultimately ignored in a well-greased system.
Also exposed in this film is yet another Mozart versus Salieri saga in the guise of the art collecting of Dr. Barnes and publisher Walter Annenberg. Soon after Barnes’ death in 1951, Annenberg sharpened his blade and led the Philadelphia establishment in cutting out the heart of Barnes’ passionate mission.
This is a disturbing, complex story that offers a wealth of one-sided information that’ll propel any emotional art enthusiast ever closer to a straight jacket. And hidden in the shadows of the film are nastier details of this curmudgeon’s life and any mention of how he may have capitalized on the Depression to purchase his art at a “steal” in the first place. (Can you say karma?)
The timing of the movie is perfect as we can move from reel to real time as the completion of the steal process—the move of the artwork from Lower Merion to Philadelphia is scheduled to be completed in 2012.
We leave the darkness in a quandary of whether to book a flight to Philadelphia to see the best of the best of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art, or support Barnes’ wishes by staying home while the rest of the world flocks to, as arts reporter David D’Arcy called it, a “McBarnes,” and in so doing awarding the Philadelphia establishment exactly what it wanted out of the steal: its tourism dollars.
The Art of the Steal premieres at the 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival on Saturday, September 25, 1:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre, with two more showings at the Marcus North Shore and Ridge Cinemas on Sept. 28 and Oct. 3. For a full list of showtimes and ticket info, click here.