Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Don Argott, 2009

In high school I was one of those kids who spent every possible waking moment in the art room. I took as many art classes as I could fit into my schedule and got permission to spend my free periods (including lunch) there. My art teacher, Mr. Cook, is probably the most patient human being put on this earth. Looking back, I don't think any of us realized how fortunate we were that the school put enough value on the arts to finance and allow some pretty cool things. Probably the most amazing experience was the day we were all bused to the Barnes Foundation, which is an art school that also houses a fantastic, private collection located about five miles outside the city of Philadelphia. It contains some of the greatest post-Impressionist art in the world and, unlike state-funded public museums, has a much more private, intimate feel. This is also due to the fact that they take a limited number of visitors per day, all on reservation, and gear themselves specifically toward artists and art students. I've been to some of the best art museums in the world and none of them really hold a candle to the Barnes.

The Art of the Steal is the story of the Barnes Foundation, primarily focusing on the controversial and upsetting decision to move the collection to downtown Philadelphia, right in one of the biggest tourist areas: the Ben Franklin Parkway, a stone's throw from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dr. Barnes, the Foundation's creator, was a working class Philadelphian who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. With this money he established what is probably the greatest art collection in the United States -- over one hundred Renoirs, Cezannes, and Matisses (including the Art of the Dance murals), almost fifty Picassos, a few Van Goghs, some Manet, some Monet, and some works by one of my favorite artists, Modigliani, among others. The collection also represents some of the best works by these artists and some of the most important modern paintings to view and study.

Dr. Barnes was supposedly an anti-Robber Baron curmudgeon and held very tightly onto his collection, taking numerous legal measures to make sure it stayed in the Foundation (i.e. no selling, lending, or moving the paintings). After his death and the death of one of his closest disciples, the Foundation's history took an unfortunate turn. After a variety of misadventures and mishandlings, we get to the heart of the story. In order to facilitate the collection's move to downtown Philadelphia, there were a number of shocking financial and legal decisions made to negate Dr. Barnes's will. In a move that seems almost conspiratorial, this legal desecration was made possible by participation from the mayor, the governor, the Philadelphia court system, and several charities like the Annenberg foundation.

Though I don't watch a whole lot of documentaries, I really enjoyed the Art of the Steal. The interviewees are eloquent and passionate, the film is well written and edited, and the only criticism I can think of is that it is clearly biased. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the Barnes Foundation and several of the private charities involved in its move were unwilling to be interviewed, which forces it to seem slanted. However, it is particularly impressive, considering that they were not allowed to film inside the Barnes Foundation and had extremely limited materials to work with. Aside from the interviews, almost all the footage is archival.

Obviously it's a subject close to my heart, but I think the endless struggle between art and commerce is something that should concern everyone. First of all, moving the Barnes is illegal. Dr. Barnes had an ironclad will and the fact that it was overturned so easily should be unsettling. Especially a will as important as Dr. Barnes's, which governs something like thirty billion dollars worth of art. Second of all, the Foundation was set up for people who love and appreciate art. Proponents of moving the collection argued that everyone should be able to see it, but everyone could -- by making reservations and taking a half an hour car or bus ride. On the other hand, the collection wasn't meant for everyone. Half of the assholes who go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art just want to take pictures next to the Rocky statue and then run up the steps. The Barnes was designed for something more.

Go see The Art of the Steal while it's in the theater -- it opened yesterday in Philadelphia at the Ritz. I dare you not to be enraged and upset that one of the country's most important cultural treasures is about to be raped and pillaged by a bunch of money hungry politicians who don't know anything more about "The Bathers" than how much they can charge for it. And for the inevitable line of tote bags and key chains. Also, go see the Barnes Collection while it is still located in Lower Merion. One of the wings is closed, but you can still make reservations and see the collection as it was meant to be seen. For a few more months, at least - it's not slated to move till 2012.

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