The Non-Fiction Section: Art of the Steal


July 13, 2011 by abbyo

I have never walked out of a movie before. It would take a lot for me to even consider doing it. I would need to be angered by the things I saw. The movie would need to present me with wholly unlikeable characters, and a premise that was questionably worth my attention. It would need to be narrow-minded, self-righteous in its wrongness, and offend my beliefs about something I hold dear. In short, it would have to be a lot like this week’s post subject, “Art of the Steal.” I did not walk out of “Art of the Steal,” but that’s because I was watching it at home, not in a theater, and because I was reviewing it for this blog, which meant I had to watch every last excruciating, obnoxious second. I was so angry by the time I finished the film that my emotions made me physically tired. Had the DVD not been a rental, I might have pulled a David Edelstein and snapped the thing over my knee.

“Art of the Steal” is about the Albert Barnes Collection, a collection of great works of art amassed by eccentric pharmaceutical entrepreneur Albert Barnes. The collection contains works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, and scads of other important artists, which Barnes scored by purchasing them before they were in demand. Instead of allowing the public to come and see his collection (stored in his Merion, PA, mansion) at will, Barnes blocked access, instead allowing only students from the educational foundation he created to get a look.

Upon his death in 1951, the future of the Barnes foundation was thrown into turmoil. In his will, Barnes stipulated that his collection be kept in its current location, and to never allow the Philadelphia Museum of Art to get their grubby little hands on it. But subsequent leaders of the Barnes Foundation realized that to keep the foundation running, they were going to have to actually raise some money. Their attempts to keep the foundation alive eventually led to the collection’s acquisition by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, much to the anger of “art lovers” all over the world, or so the documentary would have us believe.

“Art of the Steal” tells the story of the Barnes Collection in a way that makes it look like the Philadelphia art establishment (and the city) did a great injustice to the collection by going against Albert Barnes’ wishes and making the art more accessible to the public. The film glorifies anyone who’s even remotely associated with the foundation, and vilifies anyone who tried to make the collection more accessible. There’s a strong vein of anti-tourism running through this movie that smacks of elitism, as though the collection should be kept selectively accessible because the common man isn’t worthy of exposure to art. Not only the Philadelphia museum but museums worldwide are viewed as commercial tarts interested only in turning a profit from special exhibits. It’s like an art world version of “The Corporation,” where the Louvre and the National Gallery are viewed in the same way as Wal-Mart and Costco.

This was where my problems with “Art of the Steal” started. I’m a fan of art museums, and I’m going to make the crazy assumption that I’m not alone. I may never have studied art history, but I do love great art, and I appreciate the educational opportunity that museums allow. I also understand that acquiring and maintaining the works in these places is not cheap, and that to keep their budgets balanced, museums do need to court donors and host for-profit special exhibits. I resent an institution I respect being badmouthed for providing what I consider valuable services, and I resent being considered a mindless consumer for having this point of view. Just because some people have to travel to see good art does not mean they don’t appreciate it. The fact that they’re willing to make the journey proves that they do.

The featured anti-move activists really do not help the film’s argument. Some of the documentary’s subjects are the foundation’s neighbors, all interviewed in their large, expensive Merion homes. They complained when the foundation’s then-director Richard Glanton tried to expand museum access by lengthening its hours and selling some paintings to pay for extensive restoration to the building. They’re angry about the large buses and crowds of people making their way through their once-quiet neighborhoods. Then they throw a fit when it’s proposed the foundation moves to Philadelphia, to a larger building with easier public access, because Merion is supposedly where the collection belongs. I kept getting the feeling that their outrage was less about the integrity of the foundation as it was about their neighborhood retaining cultural (and real estate) value.

Towards the end of the documentary, these “activists” are filmed protesting a collection fundraising event in Philadelphia, waving placards, bugging donors and whining about cultural vandalism. I might have had sympathy had I not been certain that these people have more money than I will likely ever see in my lifetime, and they were choosing to spend their time on this rather than doing something constructive with their considerable resources, like helping end hunger or poverty or global warming. One of the activists even has the gall to announce that the moving of the Barnes is a cultural travesty on a level with World War II, which made me simultaneously laugh out loud and want to throw something nasty at him.

I do understand the film’s initial argument, that Barnes had a noble vision for his collection that was ignored after his death. But my impression of Barnes’ intentions was that they were pretty naïve. I respect the idea of using his collection for educational purposes. Perhaps it wouldn’t seem as unrealistic if the collection hadn’t contained art like this:

You just can’t have a collection that’s worth this much monetarily and culturally and expect people to leave it alone. People are going to want to see that art. The fact that Barnes made this decision ultimately because the Philadelphia art establishment initially poo-pooed his collection because they didn’t realize how important the works included were just makes Barnes’ motives seem phony and childish.

That the makers of “Art of the Steal” have the gall to assume that the audience is on their side from the first frame of the film is pretty amazing, given the position it takes. It looks at art appreciation from a hifalutin perspective, and takes the frankly stunning position that art is meant only for people who are deemed worthy to see it, and that any attempt to give it wider exposure is cultural heresy. While watching the documentary, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d been duped into watching something vain and facetious, when I could have been devoting my attention to a film that focused on a subject which actually mattered.

Link: NPR story about the moving of the Barnes Collection (slated to make the big transition next spring)


2 thoughts on “The Non-Fiction Section: Art of the Steal

  1. Evelyn Yaari says:

    I get what you’re saying, but it’s kind of a shame the movie reinforced some misconceptions about the Barnes Foundation. About access, for example. The Barnes Foundation NEVER applied for a change in the Zoning to allow more people in. Then, after a citizens’ group applied anyway and got the change so they could triple the number of people, the Barnes administration did practically nothing still to improve access. Oh, but they did raise the price from $5 to $17. You think the new place is going to be anything like the real place? nothing like it at all. And the real place was Dr. Barnes gift to the people, you and me. That’s it. Accept no substitutes, especially not a really expensive, noisy, busy place instead of the serene, green, dream place where he wanted it to be just minutes from the center of Philadelphia. I don’t know anything about art, but I know when we’re being lied to and the deception in this story is endless. But anyway, it’s great that you took the time to think and write about this.

  2. abbyo says:

    Thanks, Evelyn! It’s nice to get a perspective from someone who lives in the area–the film makes it hard to get a balanced perspective on how things really went down.

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