ART FOR WHOSE SAKE?
It s been called the greatest theft of art since the Second World War. THE ART OF THE STEAL reveals how a private collection of paintings became the envy of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major institutions and the prize in a battle between one man s vision and the forces of commerce and politics. Founded in 1922 by wealthy American drug developer and art collector Albert C. Barnes, the Barnes Foundation became the finest collection of paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh and other masters. Housed in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, the Barnes Foundation was envisioned by Barnes as an art school, not a public museum, but ever since Barnes death in 1951, the fight over its future has been underway. On one side are the artists, historians and lawyers defending Barnes wish that the entire collection (valued at over $25 billion) never be moved, loaned or sold; and on the other side, the politicians, huge charitable trusts, tourism boards and rich socialites pushing to relocate it to downtown Philadelphia. This is a real-life David vs. Goliath story, a tale of suspense in which hangs the fate of some of the most sublime works of art ever created.
Director Don Argott's documentary about the controversial move of the Barnes art collection to downtown Philadelphia, The Art of the Steal
, is so adamantly against the relocation that it feels as if the viewer is watching evidence presented in a murder trial. Ex-Barnes student Lenny Feinberg funded the film, openly intending it to be an argument against the relocation, in recent years, of the Barnes Foundation, which was established in 1922. Albert Barnes envisioned his foundation as an art school rather than a museum, and he wrote a detailed will to dictate the future of his highly desirable collection (valued at $25 billion) of impressionist and postimpressionist works by artists like Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, van Gogh, Cezanne, and others. The film focuses on interviews given by people on both sides: advocates and art advisers, critics such as Christopher Knight, professors such as Dr. Robert Zaller, and those under fire, like Richard Glanson, ex-Barnes president who planned dubious legislation in the 1990s to move the art from its rural location. Copious research into what some call a crime shows, and one almost gets too clear a picture of, how a private art collection can be usurped through government. Yet the film's didacticism is also its weakness. Typewriters in the credits amid slips of torn paper with typewritten notes, black backdrops with title headings for each chapter that melodramatically read "The Last Living Apostle" or "The Takeover," offer little in the way of interpretative opinion. Midway through this well-played, strategic film there appears a bulletin board of "key players," those politicians and socialites who enabled Albert Barnes's art collection to move against Barnes's will. Even Philadelphia mayor John F. Scott, who holds a press conference to announce that the collection will be relocated to the city, comes out looking fiendish because some art was moved to a new location. While art-world viewers may find the story in The Art of the Steal
as offensive as Argott obviously does, some viewers may be left wondering Who cares? --Trinie Dalton