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Review> Take That!
New documentary alleges Barnes Foundation theft, but Mark Lamster acquits
The main gallery at the Barnes Foundation's original home in Merion, Pennsylvania.
Courtesy IFC Films

The Art of the Steal
Directed by Don Argott
Premieres tonight in New York, Philadelphia & On Demand
Select cities nationwide beginning March 12

Barnes at the foundation with his dog Fidéle.

There’s a moment about halfway through The Art of the Steal, Don Argott’s polemical documentary about the saga of the Barnes Foundation, when we meet Ed Rendell, the Pennsylvania governor chiefly responsible for wresting control of that institution and moving its paintings, despite considerable opposition, to a site in downtown Philadelphia. As Argott would have it, Rendell is a villain, the orchestrator of a vast conspiracy to abscond with an art collection valued at $25 billion. The Art of the Steal, however, is so imbalanced a film that Rendell emerges as a figure of admirably rational thinking, never mind the veracity of Argott’s charge.

Like so many dogmatic visionaries—Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand come to mind—Albert C. Barnes has always had his share of ardent acolytes. A son of working-class Philadelphia, he put himself through medical school and made a fortune in pharmaceuticals. Barnes was a progressive in all things, at least by Philadelphia standards: He ran an integrated factory and collected Impressionist and Post-Impressionist French paintings. Before his 1951 death in a car accident, he amassed a trove that includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos. (His interest in modernism seemed to halt with Cubism.)

In 1923, Barnes exhibited his collection at the Institute of Fine Arts, expecting a hero’s reception. Instead, he was denigrated, in the press and in Main Line drawing rooms, as a purveyor of tasteless degeneracy. Barnes was not the type to mollify his critics. He turned up his nose at the Philadelphia Philistines and took his toys to suburban Merion. His foundation, chartered a year earlier, would be devoted solely to art education. Even minimal public viewing hours—two days a week—were not instituted until the 1960s.

Having witnessed the Philadelphia Museum of Art absorbing the Old Masters collection of his friend John G. Johnson after his death—despite Johnson’s specific injunction—Barnes took extreme measures to keep his own collection from The Establishment. He had his lawyers draw up an ironclad will ensuring that it would absolutely, positively be held intact in the building Philip Cret designed for it, never to be lent, sold, or moved.

Barnes died without heir, but his vision was upheld through the directorship of his amanuensis, Violette de Mazia (the film is vague as to the precise nature of their relationship). It was with her death, in 1988, that things started to go awry. Control of the institution was left to Lincoln University, a historically black college, and thereafter fell into the hands of Richard Glanton, a Lincoln appointee with grand aspirations.

Glanton was the first to violate the Barnes trust, sending the collection on a blockbuster around-the-world tour, culminating at the hated Philadelphia Museum of Art. As Argott would have it, this was a travesty, but exactly why anyone should be upset, beyond the fact that it would have outraged the long-dead Barnes, is left unsaid. Glanton also engaged in a largely frivolous and financially draining lawsuit with the neighbors, who were displeased with the increased traffic to the previously dormant institution.

It didn’t take any great visionary to see that the Barnes, with its priceless collection, weak governance, and shrinking balance sheet, was a sitting duck. In a deal apparently brokered by Rendell, Lincoln was bought off (with a $50 million new student center), and a coalition of Philadelphia nonprofits took over its board. In 2006, the remade Barnes announced it would be moving its collection to a $150 million new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, now under construction, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The merits of that new building are not addressed in The Art of the Steal—Williams and Tsien are not even mentioned in the film. More significantly, Argott fails to engage or even acknowledge the two central questions the Barnes controversy (and his film) raises. First, why should reasonable people be forced to live with the intransigent intentions of a man who’s been dead for half a century? And second, might the Barnes collection actually be better off in a purpose-built museum in downtown Philadelphia, where it will be far more accessible to the general public, and a boon to that city’s teetering economy?

What happens to artworks when their owners die? There is no subject that is more charged in the art world, as seen in the heated debates over the status of the Elgin Marbles and the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazis. The Barnes is a particularly trying case. There are, of course, good reasons for upholding the original Barnes intent, beyond a sense of legal rectitude. There is historical value to seeing Barnes’ works in their original context, and in a rarefied place off the well-trod tourist path. But there can be no denying the public benefit, both for the city of Philadelphia and the general public, of opening the collection to a wider audience.

Argott’s film, while skirting these issues, frequently undermines its own argument. In attacking the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its acquisition of the Johnson collection, for instance, Argott gives us a view of Rogier van der Weyden’s glorious Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, as it was once exhibited in Johnson’s somewhat claustrophobic mansion. What we don’t see is its present display at the museum, surely one of the most dramatic Old Master installations in the United States.

In the end, The Art of the Steal manages to elicit sympathy not so much for Argott’s argument, as for some of the dedicated Barnesians—teachers, critics, and friends of the institution as it was—who see themselves, with some justification, fighting the good fight against forces whose power far eclipsed their own. Perhaps this is not the legacy they wanted, but they could do worse. Soon enough, they’ll have a new museum. They might even like it.

Read all of AN's Friday Reviews here.

Mark Lamster

Mark Lamster is the author of Master of Shadows (Nan Talese, 2009), a political biography of the painter Peter Paul Rubens.