The soundtrack of the new, muckraking art-world documentary The Art of the Steal, which screens tonight at the New York Film Festival, is laced with plot-thickening compositions by Philip Glass. The real background noise, though, is the clamor of barbarians at the gates.
Under assault, as the film tells it, is the Barnes Foundation, erected in 1922 by collector Albert C. Barnes on his estate outside Philadelphia, to be used as a school for art students. Containing more Cézannes than all of Paris and some of the best works of Picasso, Matisse, and Seurat, the Barnes collection (estimated to be worth as much as $25 billion) is now recognized as one of the world’s finest holdings, public or private, of Post-Impressionist and early modern art.
Barnes, a self-made pharmaceuticals magnate who despised Philadelphia society and hung his paintings as he damn well pleased, never intended for his collection to become the modest tourist attraction it is now. And the current plan to transfer it to a new location in downtown Philly goes against everything the old man stood for. Why else, the film argues, would he have stipulated in his will that none of his paintings ever leave his estate in the leafy suburb of Merion?
Director Don Argott (with editor Demian Fenton) surveys the yawning ideological chasm separating that is the Barnes controversy. From the pro-preservation camp, there are accusations of philistinism and rhapsodies about the pilgrimage to the original institution’s hallowed chambers.
The film offers a less generous view of the “McBarnes” advocates, to say the least. Civic cheerleaders who laud the move as a boon to the city, they come off as clueless at best and venal at worst. At a press conference, the former Philadelphia mayor boasts that the relocation would have “the [economic] impact of three Super Bowls, without the beer.”
If there are supporters of the move who can appreciate the difference between a museum and a football stadium, they are not to be found here. (Members of the Barnes board declined to participate in the film.) Mostly unchallenged, then, the filmmakers take aim at the three charitable foundations (the Pew, Lenfest, and Annenberg) leading fundraising efforts for the new museum. Why didn’t these supposedly enlightened bodies use their seats on the Barnes board support the full-preservation option? The mere involvement of a group run by descendants of Barnes’s arch-nemesis and rival collector Walter Annenberg is enough to stir suspicion.
The film’s vocal cast of supportive critics, Merion residents, and former Foundation students notwithstanding, Barnes is undoubtedly the underdog in this battle-for one thing, he’s dead. The filmmakers aren’t necessarily wrong to approach the story from his point of view, but in doing so they miss some key questions: Didn’t the draconian investment restrictions Barnes imposed on his successors make some sort of buyout inevitable? Was his vision of the Foundation’s future hopelessly utopian to begin with? Is it really all that important that a bullheaded collector’s will be carried out to the letter?
though such comparisons don’t enter the film’s purview, Barnes was different from the likes of Morgan, Frick, and Huntington. As Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight (who provides some of the film’s most cogent and vehement sound bytes) has noted, Barnes bought masterpieces “to teach democratic ideals,” not to amass “the conservative trappings of European aristocracy.”
In the current battle over his collection, though, it’s Barnes who comes off as conservative. He would no doubt bemoan the commercialization of the art-viewing experience in Philadelphia and other cities. He might also regret he didn’t do more to keep the establishment vultures and the mobs at bay. Barnes could have thrown the general popluation a bone during his lifetime, or allowed the executors of his will more leeway to keep the Foundation in the black.
But the film’s producer, Sheena Joyce, might have put it best at a New York Film Festival press conference last week. “I think the big lesson is, if you have anything, have children.”
The Art of the Steal plays tonight and October 6 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Sundance Selects will release the film next year.