THE ART OF THE STEAL (2009, directed by Don Argott, 101 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The Art of the Steal is nothing if not bold; it calls out Governor Ed Rendell, The Annenbergs and The Pew Charitable Trusts on charges of greed, conspiracy and vulgarism. EvenInky reviewer Carrie Rickey has been sited with charges of conflict of interest since the film opened. Passions run high when discussing the Barnes Foundation and its treasure trove of Impressionist and Modern Art and it gives the film a sense of urgency similar to those newsy documentaries about he folly of the Iraq War. Regardless how one feels about the issue, the film’s depiction of how the wheels of power turn is instructive in ways that transcend the fate of billions of dollars of paintings and art.
Directed by Don Argott, the local documentary maker who chronicled the fret-busting adventures of Paul Green’s School of Rock, Art of the Steal tells the tale of Albert Barnes, a self-made man who accrued a fortune in the field of medicine and used it to assemble an unimaginable collection of Impressionist and Modern Art before their prices rose into the stratosphere (Degas, VanGogh , Picasso, you name ’em.) Class conscious and disliked by Philly high society, Barnes sought to keep his collection private, storing it in a funky, unusual spot in the Philly suburb ofMerion where it is mounted in an intuitive, aesthetic manner that flies in the face of the carefully-classified style of modern museums. The manner in which his art was displayed had no bigger fan than Henri Matisse himself, who described the museum as “the only sane place to see art in America.” When Barnes died without an heir in 1951, his will was specifically written with the goal of keeping the collection intact and inMerion . But even a bigger-than-life figure like Barnes has trouble maintaining his will thirty years after his death. Slowly and surely his vision for the collection begins to get chipped away; first with a touring show while the museum is closed for repairs, then in a long campaign to wrestle the art away fromMerion, as the Philly forces that Barnes despised hatch a plan to snatch away the collection for a new Center City location.
Argott’s film has been charged with being unfair to the forces who seek to claim the art but it is hard to be too sympathetic since most denied to be interviewed for the film. The film is unambiguously biased towards keeping the art where it is although we certainly get the viewpoint of those who have different ambitions. Those ambitions are recognizable as the dominant market philosophy, one that says all assets must be manipulated to produce the largest profit possible, an idea to which all other values must be subservient. The argument that more people could see the art in its fancy new digs is presented as the trump card to end all arguments. Yet for anyone who has bristled at the unimaginative way that art is displayed in modern museum — most often separated by nation, artist or movement — The Barnes Museum is refreshingly unique: art curated and displayed in an intimate space by someone who understood the commonality between all people and artistic inspirations. The fact that such that such iconoclastic wisdom would be lost on the pillars of local society seems a given. The way these powers go about procuring control is a classic example of a corporate takeover, easily transferred to the world of large non-profit institutions. Boards are expanded then seeded with compliant members, gifts are made to controlling institutions and the press is fed a narrative that a takeover is the best for all concerned. While the desire to move the Barnes seems defensible, the lingering suspicion is that the Philadelphia cultural scene will be a little less unique without the old Barnes, something The Art of the Steal deftly paints with brush strokes of sadness.
Philadelphia City Paper reviewer Sam Adams will moderate discussions with director Don Argott and producer Sheena Joyce at the 7:15pm showing of THE ART OF THE STEAL, Friday and Saturday March 5th & 6th at the Ritz 5 in Philadelphia.