The Art of the Steal

“This is a story that should have been told as it went along,” says Julian Bond. That story has to do with art and commerce, exploitation and betrayal. It also has to do, as Bond implies here, with the collusions of institutions (media, government, museums, and so-called non-profits), the ways that power protects its own.

It is, specifically, the story of the Barnes Foundation, which Henri Matisse famously described as “the only sane place to see art in America.” The observation itself is a swirl of stories, of not-so-implicit critiques. Each of the primary terms is placed in questionable relation to the others: art to sanity, sanity to America, and the Barnes Foundation to art, for examples. At the time he spoke, of course, Matisse had a stake in the Barnes: not only does the collection include some 59 pieces by the artist, including La Danse II, commissioned in 1931, but it is regarded by many as the finest and fullest agglomeration of post-impressionist and early modern art in the world.

That reputation is the premise of The Art of the Steal, available on demand and opening 26 February at New York’s IFC Center. Don Argott’s documentary tracks the Foundation’s complicated history, from its inception by Albert C. Barnes to the ugly legal battle over its relocation from Merion, PA to Philadelphia. The outcome of that battle — the collection will be moved downtown by 2012 — might also be understood as part of Matisse’s critique. For the move undermines the Foundation’s original conception, as a site apart from the commercial trafficking and power-brokering that comprises the business of fine art.

This conception was laid out in Barnes’ lifetime, as he used the great wealth he accumulated from his invention of the antimicrobial agent Argyrol to establish the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution in 1922. As he stated, the Foundation would “attack the enemies of intelligence and imagination in art, whether or not those enemies are protected by financial power or social prestige.” The sheer size of the collection — eventually numbering over 2500 pieces — is impressive in itself, but the value of the collection has to do with it’s the choices Barnes made. As Dr. Robert Zaller, professor of history and politics at Drexel, puts it, Barnes was “way ahead of his of his time, artistically and politically,” bringing together works initially rejected by the art establishment. By the time his tastes and understandings were confirmed by the mainstream, his collection was recalculated repeatedly — with estimates of its worth now ranging from $6 billion to $25 billion.

As the film recounts, Barnes fought for years with that establishment — including local villains like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Annenberg family, who spoke loudly through the Philadelphia Inquirer (one headline highlighted in the film calls the collection “primitive”). Barnes gave as good as he got, apparently, proclaiming the city a “depressing intellectual slum,” and asserting repeatedly that he considered the Foundation a respite and corrective to such backwardness. Determined as he was to maintain what he deemed the Foundation’s purpose as an educational venue, used primarily by teachers and students, Barnes refused to adhere to museum conventions. When he was killed in a car accident in 1951, survivors tasked with carrying on his project — including Foundation teacher Violette de Mazia — looked to his will, which stated plainly that the collection could not be sold, loaned or moved, but must remain in place, used as he originally designated.

The film follows what John Anderson (author of the book Art Held Hostage) calls a “campaign” by Walter Annenberg to wrest control of the collection. The Foundation countered such efforts, again by following Barnes’ will, that the collection be donated to the collection to the historically black Lincoln University (where Julian Bond’s father Horace Mann Bond was president from 1945 to 1957). This ignites outrage on the part of corporate “art world” representatives, who propose — speciously, according to the film — that the collection be made available to a broader public.

The documentary tells this story with typical means — talking heads and archival photos and footage — as well as some devices that are more antic and even clever, including occasional shots of the collection and animation (legal documents redacted as they appear on screen), footage of protestors trying to save the Foundation (organized as “Friends of the Barnes Foundation”), and images of courtrooms intimating the David-and-Goliath nature of the battle. The stakes keep escalating, as the fight is eventually joined by “local billionaire” Ray Perelman, politicians, and the charitable Philadelphia Foundations, Annenberg, Lenfest, and Pew. Rebecca Rimel, Pew’s President and Chief Executive Officer, looks especially Cruella de Ville-ish here, one of several subjects who “declined to be interviewed” for the film (a familiar device to damn such subjects).

The film mounts a conventional argument, that the good, insightful, and generous art-lovers want to preserve the Foundation’s “democratic nature,” but are beset and thwarted by profiteers. Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic, calls the debacle “a nonprofit corporate takeover,” as the Philadelphia Foundations endeavor to “remake the [Barnes] board so you have a compliant body on your side.” (Some of these Foundations, Julian Bond notes as he disparages them, donate to the NAACP, which he chairs, and may not be happy that he calls them out here.)

In fact, the Friends take up this fight to preserve the Foundation rather late, as many are neighbors to the actual Merion site and initially complain about efforts to raise money by opening doors to general consumers (call them non-neighbors). As these Friends are now allied with former Barnes students and teachers, all narrate noble resistance to corporate and political interests, embodied here by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor John Street, who assert they only want to make the city “world class.” Barnes Foundation supporter and Art Newspaper correspondent David D’Arcy notes ruefully that “The city doesn’t do itself justice by saying, ‘We need to become a world class city by stealing a collection.'” This theft, the film argues, destroys what Anderson calls a “perfect jewel box,” evidence of the greed, cold calculation, and essential lack of sanity that undergird the business of art.

RATING 6 / 10