It’s difficult at first to think of museums and charities as villains, but this documentary does a good job of showing just how much of America’s non-profit art world has been swallowed up by commerce and power brokers.
Reviewed by Justin Marble
Don Argott’s new documentary, “The Art of the Steal,” is a true underdog fight story (the individual control versus greed version), although it doesn’t seem that way at first.
The relatively by-the-numbers advocacy documentary chronicles the fate of the art collection of Dr. Albert Barnes, a billionaire who made his fortune from inventing a cure for gonorrhea called Argyrol. By collecting French impressionist artwork when it was unpopular with the mainstream art crowd, Barnes came to own an almost priceless collection, including 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and works by other masters such as Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet. Estimates on the collection’s worth vary between 6 and 25 billion dollars.
When he had amassed an impressive collection, he decided to show it in nearby Philadelphia where it was promptly trashed by art critics and the Philadelphia elite. They simply didn’t know what they were seeing. Barnes, already a bit of a snob before this slight, retreated with the collection to outside the city, a town called Lower Merion. It was here in 1922 that he founded the Barnes Foundation, an educational institute dedicated to the study of art, with the collection as the crown jewel. He also only opened the building once a week to the public as he detested the public nature of museums and the taste of the unsophisticated masses. Essentially, Barnes took his billion-dollar ball and went home.
As taste shifted and the art community realized the treasure trove Barnes was sitting on, they came calling. Barnes had none of it. His stance was that they had their chance and had missed it, that they were all fools whose value of art was dictated by popular opinion, and that they would never touch his cherished collection.
Before he died he drew up an ironclad will that stated that the paintings were never to leave Lower Merion and never be sold or loaned, and that the Barnes Foundation would remain a purely educational institution. As a final insult to the rich and white cultural and social elites who had ignored the masterpieces he loved, he left control of the foundation in the hands of Lincoln University, a poor, black college.
So why is this a true underdog story? From an objective standpoint, it shouldn’t be. Barnes’s intent was perfectly clear, his wishes for his property absolutely indisputable. Nobody would ever get their hands on the art he so deeply loved. It stands to reason that anybody who wanted to exploit Barnes’s legacy would face a formidable challenge. But “The Art of the Steal” shows that when someone powerful enough wants something, there’s little to be done to stop them from taking it.
In a true underdog story, the weaker fighter shouldn’t really win, because that so rarely actually happens. He should be thrashed senseless. It is fitting, then, that the last time the Philadelphia Museum of Art was featured in a film, legendary underdog Rocky Balboa was flying up their front steps. In “The Art of the Steal,” the Barnes Foundation gets knocked out in the first round. It’s a bloodbath.
The conflict in the film is between the very small Friends of the Barnes organization, composed of former teachers, students, and neighbors, and the Philadelphia art elite, including the Museum of Art, several behemoth non-profit charities, and the government. These groups want to move the Barnes to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a bustling tourist area where the collections will be housed in a modern museum rather than the intimate space they are currently housed in.
It’s difficult at first to think of museums and charities as villains, but the film does a good job of showing just how much of the art world has been swallowed up by commerce and power brokers. These people operate under the guise of “public access” and a better space to house the art, but their entire thesis is based on the idea that Barnes wanted the work to be seen in the first place.
Technically, the Barnes Foundation is an educational institution built around a private collection, but the people wanting to move the art repeatedly refer to it as a museum, as if this is the only possible way for art to exist in the modern era. Both Barnes and the film make a strong case against modern museums as a corruption of art. While Barnes was extreme in secluding these masterpieces from the world, setting them up as a tourist attraction just seems wrong.
And this is where “The Art of the Steal” really shines. It arouses strong feelings and sucks the viewer into the bout. Because at its core the movie isn’t about Barnes or art or any of this. It’s about the bully who takes the geek’s lunch money and escapes unpunished. Whether you know a Cezanne from a Picasso doesn’t matter at all. During one protest shown in the film, a protester yells that this is a “theft in broad daylight.” But who will arrest the governor of Pennsylvania?
Watching professors and intellectuals attempt to fight against politicians, courts, and millionaires working in consortium is like watching an ant mount an offensive against the sun. Argott invokes the helplessness and desperation of the opposition, and it rings true.
Yes, the documentary is completely one-sided and a tad idealistic. The middle of the film deals with former president of the Barnes, Richard Glanton, who took the exhibition on the road in order to raise money to fix up the dilapidated building. Argott paints him as evil, but Glanton also shows up in the film to defend himself. While he is unlikable, he also turned down the Philadelphia Museum of Art when they approached him about housing the collection. Certainly his reign is preferable to what eventually happens.
The strength of the film isn’t really in the tale of the Barnes, as interesting as it is. The true power lies in the philosophical underpinnings Argott explores as he examines the dark underside of America’s cultural industrial complex. Questions of art versus commerce, aesthetic appraisal, and the rights of the people against the government all come up at various points. Where you personally come down on Barnes, the foundation, and Philadelphia’s attempts to move the art is ultimately determined by how you feel about these issues. But what’s universally true is that everybody loves a good, tough bout between David and Goliath, even though the outcome is never really in doubt.
An interview with direction Don Argott