I finally caught Don Argott’s fascinating art heist documentary, The Art of the Steal, last night on DVD. The film tells the story of the Barnes House paintings, an amazing collection of Post-Impressionist and Modern art that Henri Matisse believed, at the time, to be the best in the United States. Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia businessman, collected these paintings by artists ranging from Picasso and Matisse to Cezanne and Van Gogh and placed them in a small museum outside of the city center in the Philly suburb of Marion, far out of the reach of the business community in Philadelphia he despised. The paintings and sculptures were rearranged according to Barnes’ own idiosyncratic tastes: rather than placing the work of artists or from specific schools together, Barnes sought to place paintings that he believed to be related in juxtaposition. He also strictly restricted who had access to the paintings, rather than making the museum open to the public. Later, he willed ownership of the paintings and building to a small Historically Black University, Lincoln University, with the insistence that the paintings never be moved, split up, or sold. From here, Argott documents a series of moves by the city of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania and by several philanthropic organizations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, that show how the art was “stolen,” so that it could be moved into the city (presumably to become a major tourist attraction), and how, as a result, Barnes’ vision for the art was betrayed.
The film has all of the makings of a conspiracy potboiler: the enigmatic Barnes, who is presented rather uncritically as a sharp-eyed patron of the arts; mismanagement by the Barnes Foundation’s board of trustees, including several executives at Lincoln University; tough0guy politicians like Governor Ed Rendell, and cynical modern philanthropists, like the Pew leadership and the Annenbergs (who are depicted as having a long-simmering feud with the Barnes people). The film is clearly sympathetic with the Barnes Foundation, and yet, I found Art of the Steal somewhat unpersuasive. The NPR review helps to spell out why the film may have sensationalized the Barnes story and offers some explanation for how Rendell, Pew, and others may have been unfairly demonized, but by casting the question of rightful ownership in terms of a pitched legal battle, I think the film misses an opportunity to ask some more interesting questions.
Namely, like Manhola Dargis, I found it frustrating that the film seemed to stack the deck so heavily in favor of the “art snobs” who were trying to protect Barnes’ original mission for the art against the “vulgarians,” who are portrayed as simply trying to cynically create yet another tourist attraction for a wanna-be world-class city. Beyond their own goals, whose interests are served by keeping the art where it is? Bigger questions for me included the role of the hyperinflation of the art market. What does it do for the fine arts when a collection of paintings is valued at anywhere from $4 to $25 billion? In some sense, I found the film’s attempts to manufacture outrage to be somewhat unconvincing, especially given that it was less than clear that the interests of the art-viewing public were being served by having the art in such an obscure location. Does Barnes’ purchase of the art at one point in the past allow him to determine how it will be used in perpetuity? It seemed that the Barnes supporters’ arguments were that we should not break Barnes will because….well, just because. As a result, The Art of the Steal never quite convinced me that the art snobs were serving the public’s interests better than the vulgarians.