The Art of the Steal

There’s a documentary running around the art houses these days that’s better than most of the movies that are playing. It’s called The Art of the Steal, and it’s the fascinating story of the Barnes Foundation, which is a little place outside of Philadelphia that contains one of the most astounding collections of art in the world.

And 85 years ago, while Albert C. Barnes (who had amassed a fortune by inventing Argyrol) was busily collecting this art, he got a showing in Philadelphia. And the elites of the Philadelphia social circle trashed his art, and him for thinking it was worth collecting.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and all of a sudden, the art critics have caught up with Barnes, and all those Rembrandts, Matisses, Picassos, etc., are worthwhile. But Barnes has sworn they’ll never get their hands on his art again.
At the forefront of the bad blood was Philadelphia Inquirer owner Moses Amnenberg who was no less forgiving of Barnes’ snub than Barnes was of what he received. Moses passed on the feud to his son Walter, and the 90 year drama looks like it’s about to come to a close.
This is one of those documentaries that has a very clear agenda from the start. What Barnes did was to set up a special environment for his art. He placed art from different cultures and different time periods but which dealt with similar subject matters in the same room, for example, which makes for some interesting contrasts. He also limited access to this art to, for lack of a better word, people he liked.
In other words, an art critic had a much smaller chance of getting to see this art than a plumber. Well, as long as that plumber had impressed upon Barnes a genuine interest.
While this appeals to me in a rather perverse way, I can’t help but feel that the more people who get to see these works of art, the better. The filmmakers clearly feel differently and give lots of air time to people who object to the commoditization of art.
However I feel about it, however, the point that should never be glossed over in a civilized society is that Barnes felt the way he felt and put down in writing how he felt and set up a legal contract to protect his interests. So while I think that Barnes particular arrangement of art is interesting but not sacrosanct, it’s so painfully clear that the moneyed interests of Philadelphia have their own agenda that was above the law, the whole matter is a disgrace.
I mean, it’s really that simple: the man left instructions on how the art was to be taken care of. Forces worked to thwart those instructions. Barnes’ big mistake was not leaving enough money to take care of the art in the upcoming decades. Although, he actually did – he simply couldn’t foresee the level of incompetence among those who followed.
Once the documentary reached the point where the art collection was jeopardized, I found myself repeatedly asking myself — because I try not to talk to other people in the movies — why not just sell one of these truly priceless paintings some of which were valued at a half $1 billion? I mean, the trust specified that the art was not to be sold or rented or otherwise broken up but of all the elements of the trust that were corrupted over time, one tiny sale could have prevented all of that.
What it comes down to, of course, is Big Charity. we tend to feel like charity by virtue of its mere name must be a good thing. But in the United States, “charitable organization” is it more of a tax designation than anything else. The movie kind of flounders when it comes to discussing how the Barnes collection was critical to the charitable status of the Pew Foundation, but one thing is certain: a lot of people were highly interested in ignoring the wishes of the man who was smart enough to put this art collection together, and for them a mere legal contract was no barrier.
All in all, a very good movie, and better than most of the ones that we’ve seen lately: it had interesting characters, intrigue, suspense, dramatic irony, a nice pace and it was enlightening to boot.
I, the boy, and the old man all enjoyed this film.

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