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Home » Culture and Criticism

3/31: The Art Of The Steal

Submitted by on January 3, 2015 – 9:00 AM3 Comments
Photo: IFC

Photo: IFC

My father observed years ago that the best you can hope for from the government is a C-plus, an idea I've come back to many times.

It bubbled up again while I watched The Art Of The Steal, in which politicians and would-be art-world players willfully defied the wishes of the Barnes Foundation's founder, Albert C. Barnes, and the express instructions in his will for the disposition of his invaluable art collection. Dad meant, I think, large federal programs and their inefficiencies, but Don Argott's crisply pissed-off docu follows the Barnes's gradual mainstreaming from quirky and individual collection, semi-hidden in the Philadelphia suburbs and intended for the enjoyment of serious students to everyday lowest-common-denominator blockbuster museum, I kept thinking, "C-plus."

At its inception, the Barnes featured Barnes's art in a house, hung by a civilian amongst his own furniture and set off by rugs and lighting of his choice. By the end, after various judges have ignored Barnes's explicit requests and various local poobahs have exploited the collection to raise money — only a necessary measure thanks to their own shitty management of the estate — the art is just like all the other art in all the other museums in all the other cities, hung aridly on white walls at unchallenging intervals. This devolution, attained by frog-in-hot-water degrees, is infuriating in its inevitability, underlined by Argott's effective direction (the beginning of the movie is a bit over-produced, but settles into a determined rhythm) and some delightfully scathing talking heads with the likes of art correspondent David D'Arcy. D'Arcy explicitly equates the theft of the Barnes with Philadelphia's identity crisis as a city, eye-rolling that a real "world-class city" "doesn't talk about 'becoming' a world-class city," then execute on that pitiable goal by subverting legal documents.

The Art Of The Steal is paced well and unafraid to take a side, as are the participants (a former employee bellows at the camera at one point, "PHILISTINES!!"; gotta love it), and does a deft job explaining the fine print in play without cheesy graphics or chyron shortcuts. You don't have to know about fine art or care about Philly politics to know what a shame is, and Argott's shining of a light on this one is well done and worthwhile.

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  • attica says:

    The problem with wills is there's very little to be done if yours is ignored. We like to pretend this isn't the case, but our wanting to control the destinies of our stuff after we've departed is nothing to the will of the living interested parties.

  • Joy says:

    Full disclosure: As a (fond) former employee of the Pew Charitable Trusts, an organization central to migrating the collection, I have to respectfully disagree with this assessment. I understand that the movie presents a perspective based on legitimate concerns about codified last wishes. However, before the art was moved to the Barnes Collection, it was stored without climate control or regard for preservation, and the house was in disrepair. The collection was moved to ensure proper care and for greater public availability. This movie is generally seen as biased propaganda by those of us closer to the events.

  • Colin says:

    Also, a small factual note: the majority of the galleries at the new Barnes Foundation replicate his own dense arrangement of the works (mixing periods and cultures, and fine art with the quirky decorative arts he also collected), which makes for a very different viewing experience than you might get at another art museum. There's a more typical white-walled gallery for temporary and traveling exhibitions, but what people think of as "the Barnes collection" is (as far as I'm aware, as an interested-but-by-no-means-expert employee at a different institution on the Ben Franklin Parkway) pretty much intact and can't even be lent to other museums.

    …Not to deny that there are indeed some thorny legal/ethical/logistical tangles surrounding the move of the collection! But I'd argue that it's still a pretty special place to see the art and learn about Dr. Barnes's collecting.

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