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Cloaking a No-No As a Win-Win

‘The Art of the Steal’ paints of picture of moneyed, but likely well-meaning, interests having their ways with a cloistered collection of art.
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If The Art of the Steal sounds like the title of a caper flick, in a sense, that’s what Don Argott’s documentary is. The film, which opens around the country in late February, is definitely about a theft.

But it is really about the way in which a city, state and billion-dollar charitable trust managed to legally steal the world’s most important private art collection and move it from the place where it had been housed for more than 80 years, so it could serve as a tourist attraction.

“This story is a small example of what happens when we put money above everything else,” says Argott. “Everybody loses when every decision is driven by tourism or money.”

Told in a pulse-pounding, white-hot style, full of fascinating characters and righteous anger, The Art of the Steal tells the story of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a pharmaceutical millionaire who put together a massive collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art. The trove — estimated to be worth $25 billion today — was housed in an arboretum in Merion, a tree-lined, Philadelphia suburb. Barnes also set up an educational foundation to study the works.

He was also an idiosyncratic collector and an early promoter of African art, which he exhibited along with the European masterpieces in “wall ensembles” that combined visual art with furnishings and other objects to emphasize the common aesthetic elements in the different cultures.

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“There is no other place like” the Barnes Foundation, says Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, who is interviewed in the film. “It is the single most important cultural monument of the first half of the 20th century. It’s not just a random accumulation of stuff. [Barnes] regarded the inherent qualities of worlds of art and man-made things as having use value, which is why you have paintings mixed with furniture, blankets, pottery — art was a useful thing.”

But Barnes was a prickly sort, fond of alienating the Philadelphia moneyed classes, who resented the foundation’s restrictive attendance policies (it was open to the public two days a week, by reservation only), and Barnes’ refusal to allow the works to travel. His will also stipulated that the foundation would always be primarily an educational institution, and the paintings could never be removed.

Barnes died in a 1951 car crash, and for the next 30 years his wishes were carried out by a trusted associate. But when she died, Barnes’ will handed over the trusteeship of the foundation to Lincoln University, a small, historically black Pennsylvania college, which was unprepared for the task. (Barnes was a liberal Democrat heavily involved in African-American culture).

So began the Barnes “caper,” which really took off in 1992 when Richard Glanton, the foundation president, claiming the building needed repairs, selected a number of French Impressionist paintings and put them on a worldwide tour that proved to be hugely successful. The proceeds were to go for needed renovations, but what Glanton’s move really did was to show how  Barnes’ will could be circumvented, and opened the door for people and institutions with much more ambitious plans for the collection.

“Glanton had his own agenda,” says Argott. “He politicized the foundation, but he was the bulwark against the establishment taking over the Barnes. If there were outside interests at the time looking to take over the Barnes, he was keeping those people away. But you can’t deny his actions are what started the ball rolling.”

From that point on, Argott’s film carefully delineates how a combination of the City of Philadelphia, State of Pennsylvania and the multibillion-dollar Pew Charitable Trust used sophisticated bribery, political pressure, legal and other methods to force Lincoln to expand the number of trustees, put their own people on the board and eventually break the will so the entire collection could be moved to a Center City location near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This powerful troika justified their actions by arguing that the Barnes was in financial peril and needed to be more centrally located, so that its glorious collection could be open to a much larger, and much more lucrative, audience. It would, they claimed, be a major tourist attraction, a real boost for the city.

But The Art of the Steal takes an opposing point of view.

“It’s hard to get into the Sistine Chapel,” says Knight. “Does that mean the murals should be removed and put in downtown Rome? There is a good reason to open [the Barnes] further to the public, but the way is not to destroy a cultural monument.”

Referring to Pennsylvania Gov. (and former Philadelphia mayor) Ed Rendell, who is interviewed in the film and was a driving force behind the move, Argott says “I think this is one of those instances where Rendell thinks they’re doing the right thing. He sees the place as this crappy gallery in the middle of nowhere. Is he really thinking that hard about the Barnes Foundation? He’s thinking of a way he can make this a win-win for everybody.”

Currently under construction, the new Barnes building is slated to be completed in 2012.  Plans are to exhibit Barnes’ collection in the same idiosyncratic arrangements, and the structure will feature expanded space for the educational program — as well as a retail shop and café, neither of which existed in the old building.

This sounds like a win-win for everyone — the public and the city — but Argott’s film makes a solid argument that it’s not. The Art of the Steal shows how people with money and pull can pretty much do what they want, when they want, without recriminations. Whether it’s out-of-control financial institutions or powerful interests jealous of an individual’s legacy, the adage that “money talks, bullshit walks” seems to be the film’s ultimate message.

“Is it the easiest place to get into? No,” says Argott. “Is it impossible to get into? No. The same people who are moving the foundation is the same board that has the ability to make it more accessible to people. If they are going to all this length to wipe their ass with the will, why don’t they open it seven days a week? The board wants people to feel the only way to make this work is to bring it to the city of Philadelphia.”

“If you’ve got a group of very powerful people who have a particular goal in mind, they simply do what they want and make it happen,” adds Knight. “If they had gotten together to actually save the Barnes, they could have done that.”

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