The Art of the Steal is Don Argott’s documentary about the battle between the estate of self-made millionaire Albert C. Barnes and the city of Philadelphia over the important collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings Dr. Barnes amassed during the first half of the 20th century. Following his own untrained tastes and instincts, Barnes collected Cezannes, Matisses, Picassos and Renoirs before they were popular and today his collection (now valued in the billions of dollars) outclasses large institution like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Louvre in Paris.
The problem is that Barnes believed art should be protected and made available to students and artists rather than to tourists in museums. To that end, he built up The Barnes Foundation in the early 1920s in a suburb near Philadelphia to house the collection and to serve as a school for artists. Upon his death in the 1950s, he left explicit instructions he hoped would keep the collection private forever. Opposing his wishes stands the “industry of culture” – namely the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the City of Philadelphia who would be able to make millions of dollars every year off of the collection if they could get their hands on it.
Unfolding in an investigative journalistic style, Argott slowly uncovers all the below-the-surface politics and maneuvering involved in the 50-year struggle to gain control of the collection. He does an excellent job of digging up the facts through interviews and research, connecting the dots and then laying them out in an entertaining and unbiased manner. He leaves it for the viewer to decide who is right and who is wrong in this matter. If the film tips in favor of Barnes, it has more to do with how few of the big players on the opposing side agreed to present their positions on camera.
Though the Barnes camp comes off like the victim of the piece, they’re by no means portrayed as saints. There are large egos, a fair degree of anti-populist snobbery and sheer stubbornness at work here as well as reasonable questions whether the art is better off in a decaying structure with limited public access or in a brand new facility located in the heart of the city. Argott documents it all without passing judgment and though the issue is resolved legally before the film is over, the pressing questions remain.
The political and legal machinations alone are entertaining stuff, but like all good documentaries, The Art of the Steal is about much more than its central subject. It raises big questions about who owns culture, whether it should be public or private and whether or not it should be a for-profit enterprise. Beyond that are issues of an individual’s rights and how far his or her wishes can be carried after death. It’s also about the power and politics of large philanthropic organizations that put a smiling civic face on some genuinely Shakespearean dealings. Like so many stories, in the end The Art of the Steal is all about the money.
The Art of the Steal. USA (2010) Directed and filmed by Don Argott. Additional cinematography by Demian Fenton and Ben Hickernell. Music score composed by West Thordson. Musical direction by Susan Jacobs. Edited by Demian Fenton. 1 hour 41 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)