VR Film Review: “The Art of the Steal”


Anyone who thinks that art makes a dull film subject should see “The Art of the Steal.”  Last February, I was lucky enough to be at a screening at SF’s Roxy Theater with the Director Don Argott and one of his producers to field questions after the screening.  In addition to a piece of enthralling storytelling, the film raises a range of moral issues that effect (and afflict) our contemporary art world. Thankfully, its release on DVD insures that it will be available to many more viewers, and hopefully not just those interested in art.

An epic story propels “The Art of the Steal.”  The film chronicles a long and acrimonious battle to move the Barnes Foundation collection to downtown Philadelphia from its home in the suburban Merion. The battle took on a David & Goliath  Governmental, business and some non-profits (the Pew Charitable Trust most egregiously) interests threw their considerable weight behind the effort to move the collection. A small, but vocal, group of locals mounted a grass-roots effort to block the move. Though none of the players is entirely sympathetic, by the end of the film, it’s difficult not to have taken sides, depending on where your sympathies lie in the matter of public access to art.  It won’t be giving much away to say that the film itself has a considerable bias. (In the wake of Michael Moore, who thinks even-handed documentaries make for good entertainment?)

The tale begins with Alfred C. Barnes. In the first decades of the 20th century Barnes, a quirky, wealthy and largely antisocial business man (with a medical degree), assembled what is now considered to be the most important collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art (with Renaissance and African pieces to boot) anywhere. Some have estimated the current value of this collection at $25 billion.

A self-made man (and millionaire at 35), Barnes educated himself assiduously about art. During the 1910-20 period he was a passionate and energetic collector of “modern art.”  No body in the film seems to dispute that Barnes truly appreciated the works for their aesthetic qualities, rather than their potential value as a financial assets.

In 1922 Barnes established his foundation in suburban Merion, PA.  It was conceived as a holistic enterprise, comprised of his collection, a school (with educational program) and later an arboretum.  The design of the new structure built to house the collection was very much in keeping with a mansion, the suburban equivalent of the Frick or the Morgan Library or the Gardner.

The Barnes was not conceived as a public museum (although it has always been open to the public), but as a permanent educational facility attached to a collection. The film makes it clear that Barnes located it outside of Philadelphia, in large part due to the antagonism between him and the city’s elite establishment.  The collection was not hung as it would have been in a museum —i.e. chronologically or by school—but as a collector might, according to aesthetic preferences.

Barnes died in a car accident in 1951. His will stipulated that the Foundation remain intact with a Board of Trustees at its helm.  Most irritatingly to the Philadelphia establishment it seems, the will was clear in its intent that the collection could not be removed from the Foundation, either temporarily (i.e. on loan for exhibitions) or permanently.  For a long time under the watchful eye of his protegé, the provisions of Barnes’ will were steadfastly upheld.

At this chronological point “The Art of the Steal” kicks into overdrive, treating viewers to the devious, diabolical, and morally ambiguous ways in which the Philadelphia “oligarchy” (which included Barnes Board Trustees) began chipping away at Alfred Barnes’ will in the 1990s.  The stakes were huge. As then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell states succinctly on camera: “There isn’t a couple in the U.S., or Europe, or Asia who’s interested in arts and culture, who wouldn’t come to Philadelphia for at least a long weekend [if only the Barnes collection came to the city].”  One shouldn’t be surprised that pro-move interests deployed every Machiavellian tactic at their disposal.

It won’t be giving any of the viewing pleasure away to say that the opening of a new museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia is imminent. According to the press releases, the Barnes’ new home will be a two-story, 93,000-square-foot building, with an additional level below grade. The collection will be displayed in 12,000 square feet of exhibition space that replicates the scale, proportion and configuration of the original galleries in Merion. There will be a 150-seat auditorium on the lower level. 

In the end, it may be that the true hero of the story is the art collection itself.  Although tossed around in a long game of political ping pong, they will survive the move, their beauty as individual objets d’art intact. Still, for all of us who love the private home museums, the viewing experience just won’t be quite the same.

One last disturbing element of the film remained with me after the screening. No matter where one stands on the issues involving private collections and public museums, the indisputable and heartbreaking fact is that Barnes ultimately could not control the legacy he worked so carefully to build. Let that be the real lesson to all of us mortals—wills can be broken.

Weigh in if you have seen the movie; if not, go directly to Netflix and rent it!

Wider Connections

NPR—” ‘Art of the Steal: Actual Heist or Conspiracy Theory?”

The Barnes Foundation

Richard J. Wattenmaker—Great French Paintings From The Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern

The Barnes Files

7 Responses to “VR Film Review: “The Art of the Steal””

  1. Thank you for highlighting this, Liz. I did not know of the film. It looks terrific.

  2. I will search on Netflix to see if we can see this intriguing story in America’s art History. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  3. I have lived in suburban Philadelphia since 1989 and followed the tale of the Barnes Collection since I first viewed this amazing collection in the mid 1980s while still living in northern New Jersey as a life-long student of art history. I support the move to the new location and, especially, to the new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This value of this collection, now estimated to be worth billions of dollars, had outgrown the funding that supported it. The long and checkered history of the Board and Lincoln I won’t go into. Please read the Barnes own website on this:

    “The root causes that eventually precipitated the need for the move of the Collection were endemic and longstanding, including Dr. Barnes’s insistence that the Foundation rely on fixed-income investments that failed to provide the Foundation with sufficient revenue, and the Indenture’s restrictions of fund-raising events. By the time then-director Kimberly Camp arrived in 1998, the Foundation’s finances were in shambles and there was no simple solution to achieve fiscal stability.” http://www.barnesfoundation.org/barnesfaq.html

    Recall that the Barnes Foundation closed and the collection travelled to generate revenue in the recent past. In fact, the last time I visited the Barnes a few years ago, I found myself ultimately concerned for the security of the collection and the poor lighting. What about the legacy of these masters, proper insurance and maintenance for the art? At some point in time, the value of the art must supersede everything; the pictures that Dr. Barnes acquired have become too valuable to the collective history of art not to be moved to a new and improved situation in the 21st century. Again, I quote the Barnes Foundation website:

    “The Collection will continue to be displayed in an exhibition space that replicates the hang of the art ensembles in the original galleries in Merion. The new galleries will be the same scale as the original galleries in Merion and will provide the same intimate experience intended by Dr. Barnes.”

    I look forward to seeing these masterpieces in their new, more secure, better lit, and publicly accessible home. This move will be good for the art, good for the city of Philadelphia, good for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and good for people wanting to view and learn about this fabulous collection of art. Lower Merion fought long and hard to get rid of the Barnes and they succeeded. I vote “Bravo.”

    • Judy
      You’ve articulated the central argument for moving the Barnes well.

      It’s a complicated issue, which, as I note in my review, has caused people to take clear sides.

      While I generally would always prefer a work to be in the public, rather than private, sphere (if given the option), I just cannot agree with you in the case of the Barnes. I guess I naively believe that a society should honor last Wills and Testaments. I also believe that the Barnes was more than a collection—it was an experience. There are a lot of stunning white-box museums out there, but, like the Frick and the Morgan, the Barnes was something altogether different and special.

      The financial degradation of the Foundation since Barnes’ death is aken up in some detail in the film. I appreciate that Barnes’ will may have contained some challenging stipulations. The film does make an argument for fiduciary mismanagement by incarnations of the Board after I believe 1990. Those of us who did not serve on the Barnes Boards may never know how accurate a picture the film portrays. But, it does seem that reasonable to expect that a Board which voted to break a stipulation of the will (i.e. move the collection) could also have “voted” at any time to break the will in less egregious ways.

      Ultimately, it is taxpayers who are footing the bill for the move, at least $107 million. I would have thought that this amount would have gone a long way toward making the Foundation solvent. . . Alas, as is often the case, this money (from the PA Legislature) came with strings attached.

      In the end, I think you are among the lucky few, who will have seen the collection in both places. I look forward to your review of the Barnes in its new home.

  4. I saw your title while post skimming and stopped. I saw this movie about a month ago. I wrote to several of my blogger friends whose work is of and about art to comment. I apologize if I left you out.

    My husband and I found the circumstances disturbing. My MIL is from Philly and she is a wonderful artist, now 83 years old, who believes the collection should stay where originally housed. While the last commentor (is this a word?), Judy, says the collection was underfunded as years went by, I have to wonder how much of that underfunding was manufactured thanks to the suspect dealings of the people involved: the Annenbergs, Richard Glanton, President of the Museum, Bernard Watson, Chairman of the Board. It really was a concerted effort to break the will and that pisses me off. His money, his collection, his will. We don’t see that happening to Hearst Castle. The Getty was built to house the extensive collection of J.Paul which had outgrown his home overlooking Pacific Coast Hwy in Pacific Palisades. I may be wrong but his substantial trust was left for upgrading, enlarging and maintaining his collection.

    Of course, Hearst and Getty were involved in controversies surrounding whether or not they had legal rights to some of the art pieces they brought to the U.S.

    Art collections, which bring so much beauty and joy to most of us, seem to be a dirty business, with museums, collectors and forgers screwing one another as well as the public.

    My husband and I hope to see the Barnes in its original location before they move the collection.

  5. Nancy Johnson Says:

    Having just viewed this film, I cannot help but agree with Liz Hager and California Girl in that the tragedy is that because of some very powerful people, powerful politics and some so-called charitable organizations, a person’s will can be broken as such. It’s a frightening prospect. I am surprised that the citizens of the City of Philadelphia are not more alarmed. It does and it will paint the Pew Charitable Trust and Annenberg Foundation into a different light for me. Not such “good guys”.

  6. I was born and raised in Bryn Mawr, and later our family home was built in Ardmore, PA. The Barnes Foundation was about 10 minutes from my home. I spent my childhood at the Barnes Foundation, and later as a budding artist, spent as much time there as possible. The Barnes Foundation was in a beautiful location on gated grounds in Merion. Sometimes when I arrived early, I had to wait until the gates were opened. I remember waiting with such anticipation to get in there. The collection was just amazing. It was a really special and intimate time: to be so close to those works of art was just an amazing experience. Mainly because it was like being in someone’s home, not a museum. That is what made it so special to everyone that walked through its doors. That is what Barnes had in mind, and why he made the will. There were also classes and art booklets you could buy that were used in the classes that thoroughly discussed the paintings. I still have some of them.

    I think it’s a travesty that Barnes’ will was not honored. This is about greed and profit as usual. I actually did not see the film yet, but will do so. I think the perpetrators who initiated the idea to bring it to Phila. as they say, ‘so more people could view the collection’, is just idiotic. Merion is about 15 minutes from download Phila, and very easily accessible by car or public transportation. If you cannot drive 15 more minutes outside of the city to see this collection, then you shouldn’t be able to see it in the first place. I’m crushed by this entire idea. Instead of spending the money to help the Barnes Foundation to continue on, when they were having hard times, they opted to take the collection from them. Really philanthropic of you all whoever you are. Instead of honoring the collection, and the man that made it all possible, you chose to ruin one of the most intimate places on the planet for art.

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