Something strange is happening in Philadelphia.
According to Don Argott’s film The Art of the Steal, the intellectual and social elite of Pennsylvania’s largest city have launched a campaign to have $25 billion worth of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art moved from the diminutive Barnes Foundation, located just five miles outside of the city, to downtown Philadelphia, despite the wishes of the collection’s late former owner.
In the first half of the twenty-first century, Albert C. Barnes, a Pennsylvania resident who made his fortune through the creation of the antiseptic drug Argyrol, began collecting art, a lot of art, enough art to fill a small museum. And along the way he picked up pieces from some of history’s best known artists, including Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne. However, at the time that he began his efforts, these masters had not yet grabbed hold of the art world’s imagination and, not only was his collection not praised by the Pennsylvanian art community, it was openly ridiculed.
Barnes was a notoriously sensitive man with a long memory and, as a result of being snubbed, he proclaimed that those inside the city would never, ever get their hands on even a single piece of his collection. Instead, he created the Barnes Foundation, an educational institution for the dual purpose of educating students as well as protecting the art. Before a tragic auto accident took his life in 1951, he had a will written up in which he set forth that the art housed within the Barnes Foundation facilities never be loaned, moved, or sold. Upon his death, however, powerful forces inside of Philadelphia began looking for loopholes.
Those looking to move the collection, including governors, mayors, and a host of moneyed interests, argue that the collection is too valuable-culturally and otherwise-to keep locked up in a little building outside the city in which visitor access is limited to only two days a week and the primary purpose is still to be a place of education instead of a museum. Conversely, The Friends of the Barnes-a group of ex-students who are actively working to block the move-disagree, saying that what’s most important is to continue the original mission of the Barnes Foundation and to honor Albert Barnes’s will.
As an outsider looking in, it can be difficult to make a decision. On one hand, yes, honor the man’s will. It’s his art and he deserves to do with it what he will, even after death. On the other, we’re talking about what has been called by some the most important collection of Impressionistic and Modern art on the face of the earth. Furthermore, it’s no secret that the Barnes Foundation has been struggling financially to stay afloat and enduring a move into the heart of the city would breathe new financial life into the institution.
Muddying the waters are the motivations of the Philadelphia cabal. Sure, they pay lip service to the cultural benefits of getting this stuff out into the open, but they also make it blatantly clear that there’s something else really driving this thing: Money. Time after time, the point is driven home-especially by the Governor of Pennsylvania-that moving the Barnes collection to downtown will increase tourism and supplement the city’s cash flow.
As a film, it’s ascetically pleasing. The filmmakers have themselves crafted a work of art, even if it is occasionally convoluted and confusing, with too many characters and too many twists and turns. But the film also seems incomplete in that it only tells one side of the story (one gets the impression that the filmmakers themselves obviously oppose the move), and many of the key players on the other side of the fence-perhaps fearing that they were going to be taken for a ride and made to look like fools-declined invitations to be interviewed.
Ultimately, The Art of the Steal tells an interesting story about a little known battle over a massive art collection in the heart of Pennsylvania.
Is it worth seeing? Sure.
Is it done well? Yeah.
But after the final reel, one gets the impression that it could’ve been done better.