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The Art of the Steal

Director: Don Argott

(IFC Films; US DVD: 27 Jul 2010)

Review [26.Feb.2010]

The Art of the Steal may be one of the most compelling documentaries made in recent years. The story of a private collector’s jaw-dropping acquisitions and the fate of his collection in more recent years, it offers an engrossing and eye-opening glimpse into the art world. Filled with political motivations, long-held grudges, and good old-fashioned greed, The Art of the Steal sheds light on just how ruthless this highly specialized world can be.


Dr. Albert C. Barnes came from humble beginnings in Philadelphia, but as he was introduced to art by a friend in Paris, an unparalleled early modern art collection was born. While untrained, Barnes had a natural gift and an eye for recognizing notable works. His collection includes an unequaled group of paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Monet, Da Vinci, and others. Not only are these artists represented, but their works in the Barnes collection are some of the most important. One critic states that there are pieces that have no comparable value to anything in the market.  As much of it is unmatched in value, he estimates that the collection is worth billions. 


Barnes held an exhibit of his collection in 1923, but it was dismissed by the local Philadelphia society and press, calling it “primitive art” and generally trashing the entire thing. From that point on, Barnes never trusted art critics or museums and distanced himself from Philadelphia’s art society. Instead, he decided to form a school around his collection and his home would serve as an educational institution.


Once the school was established, Barnes wrote a will with strict instructions that his collection would never be loaned, sold, or separated. It was always to remain as part of his educational mission.  Unfortunately, Barnes was unexpectedly killed in a car accident in 1951 and by that time, there was plenty of interest in acquiring his collection.


Violette De Mazia, Barnes’ most trusted colleague, took control of the collection following his death. Staying true to his wishes, De Mazia grew the school and continued its original mission until her death in 1988. As there was an ongoing feud between Barnes and powerful Philadelphia newspaper family, the Annenbergs, for many years, the collection was especially vulnerable after his and De Mazia’s deaths. 


Barnes’ loathing for Philadelphia society is never more apparent than when he leaves control of the collection to Lincoln University. At the time that he wrote his will Lincoln was a poor, black college – in other words, the furthest he could get from those who most coveted his art. The rub of the matter is that at the time of De Mazia’s death, the university was a struggling state school with little expertise or recourse in dealing with such a responsibility. Here is when the saga of the fate of the collection truly starts to take a turn.

When Bernard C. Watson is granted control of the board overseeing the collection, his motives, both political and societal, are brought to the forefront. Watson has political ambitions and he sees the Barnes collection as a way to cement his position as a savior of the arts in Philadelphia. At the time that he takes charge, the collection is housed in a building badly in need of repair and upgrades.  However, rather than commit to seeing the building restored, Watson is intent on making the art available to museum after museum, precisely what Barnes didn’t want. 


Watson builds a great deal of public support through a series of articles written about Watson’s efforts to bring the treasures of the Barnes out to the rest of the world. While a seemingly noble idea, Barnes never intended for his collection to serve as a backdrop for society functions or to be split up as a traveling exhibit. The art was meant to reinforce his educational mission and provide students of the Barnes school with a real first-hand look at these vital works.


Former students and teachers from the Barnes school, along with art critics, all support Barnes’ wishes and eloquently express throughout the documentary just how important and unique an experience the school provides. Aside from the art itself, Barnes arranged the pieces in such a way that artists, periods, and mediums were all displayed together, standing in direct contrast to the traditional ways in which museums display art.


The story of the Barnes collection is one filled with long-held grudges, ambition, power, and strong emotions. The Art of the Steal  makes it clear that the seemingly altruistic intentions behind the current fate of the collection have much more at stake than honoring Barnes’ ideas and the overall well-being of the art. There is a real emotional component to this story, as well, that cannot be discounted or overstated. While the battle could easily be overshadowed by the sheer worth of the collection and the power associated with it, there are many who feel a real responsibility to the original mission and are committed to seeing it honored. 


While the fate of the collection seems inevitable, it still remains to be seen what exactly will happen. Hopefully, there will be a way to respect Barnes’ intent and preserve the collection as it was originally planned.

Rating:

J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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