The Art of Steal (2009)

Posted on February 10, 2011


The Art of Steal tells the story of the Barnes Foundation, one of the world’s greatest private art collections, and the ugly power struggle to control it.

It is impossible to tell the story of the Barnes Foundation without talking about the life and personality of Dr. Alfred C. Barnes. Barnes was a self-made millionaire of working class origin who amassed a great fortune by inventing a treatment for venereal diseases. For most of his life, Barnes waged a bitter battle with the Annenbergs—a powerful, old-money Philadelphia family—who regarded Barnes as nouveau riche and something even worse: a liberal democrat.

The Philadelphia society in the early 20th century was extremely conservative and did not have a sense of progress. Barnes, however, was ahead of his time both politically and artistically. Barnes was a great lover of art and during his trips to Europe, he became acquainted with the works of modern painters and immediately recognized it as groundbreaking work. Barnes was so far ahead artistically that he was able to buy some of the greatest works of modern art long before the museums had a clue as to what was happening in the art world.

With his considerable fortune and discerning eye, Barnes ended up creating one of the most beautiful and significant collections of post-impressionist and early modern art in the world. The collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes (that’s more Cézannes than the entire city of Paris!), 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 21 Soutines, 18 Rousseaus, 16 Modiglianis, 11 Degas, 7 Van Goghs, 6 Seurats, 4 Manets, and 4 Monets! And it’s not just the quantity but the quality that’s jaw-dropping—the collection includes masterpieces such as the Card Players by Cézanne, Models by Seurat, the Joy of Life and La Danse by Matisse to name a few.

However, when Barnes showed his collection to the Philadelphia society, they reacted with contempt and ridiculed the collection calling it “debased” and “nasty“. Barnes was shocked by the provincial outlook of the art community and he responded with reverse snobbery and withering scorn for the elite Philadelphia society. As an outsider, Barnes knew and understood how the culture industry worked and he hated it. The rich used the art industry—the museums, the exhibitions, and collections—to give themselves the aura of sophistication and bask in the reflected glory but wouldn’t recognize art even if it hit them between the eyes. He particularly hated the Philadelphia art establishment which was extremely conservative and the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, which was patronized by the Annenbergs and the Philadelphia big-wigs. Barnes had complete faith in his taste and judgment and he knew that one day the same crowd would be clamoring to see his collection and that, it seems, cemented his resolve to never let them get their hands at it.

Barnes was also deeply interested in modern education and in consultation with John Dewy, he decided to create the Barnes Foundation, an educational institution with the art collection at its center. In keeping with that vision, Barnes purchased about 12 acres of land in Merion, a wealthy suburb 4 miles from Philadelphia, and built a compact, rectangular building surrounded by beautiful gardens to serve as a school and to house his collection.

Barnes wasn’t interested in mass experience or accommodating large crowds. The Barnes Foundation gallery—unlike most museums with their white walls, large rooms, and neat categories—is an intimate and highly personal space. Barnes arranged the paintings not by period, artist, or style but by aesthetic value. He grouped paintings from different periods and styles to startling effect. It is a completely different way of understanding and experiencing art. As one of the talking heads in the documentary puts it, “it was a handmade thing in a manufactured world.

Years later, when everyone realized the importance of Barnes’ collection and began pressurizing him to open his collection to the public, Barnes told them to… well, get lost. Right from the very beginning, Barnes’ goal was to keep the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution and not as an art museum. Barnes was dead against the commercialization of his collection but he was also shrewd enough to realize that one day his collection would become so valuable that it will overpower his educational ideas. When he saw how the Philadelphia Museum of Art took away John G. Johnson’s art collection (which Johnson intended to be displayed in his house), Barnes decided that he will not let the Philadelphia Museum of Art steal his collection.

To that purpose, Barnes created an iron-clad will wherein he specified that the collection will be used solely for educational purposes. The collection will be open to the public on limited basis. The collection must never be sold, loaned, or moved from the Barnes Foundation gallery in Merion and made provisions to keep his collection away from all the mainline art establishments in Philadelphia. Barnes knew that if the paintings simply hang on a wall and can never be loaned or sold, it will not have any commercial value and can, therefore, be protected against commercial exploitation.

Dr. Barnes; in the background, you can see the Card Players and Models hanging above it.

The Barnes story forms the first half of the film; the second half details the chain of events, after Barnes’ death in 1951, that ended with the court’s decision to move the Barnes collection to downtown Philadelphia, right next to the Museum of Art—the last place on earth where Barnes wanted his beloved collection.

The documentary is unapologetically biased and seethes with righteous anger at the combined greed, grudge, and Machiavellian tactics used to break Barnes’ will—first, by the president of the Barnes Foundation Trust for personal aggrandizement and then, by local philanthropic institutions (notably, the PEW Charitable Trust and the Annenberg Foundation) and Philadelphia political players to get control of the art collection, which is now estimated at a staggering $25 to $30 billion.

The documentary tells the story in the manner of a clever art heist, which to be fair is what it is. The official story is that the Barnes Foundation is no longer financially viable and it is absolutely necessary that it be moved downtown so that a large number of people can view it and the revenue generated by the visitors can be used to maintain the foundation. The move will also improve tourism in Philadelphia and enhance its image as a world-class city.

The greatest act of cultural vandalism since the second World War”— this is what a fierce and articulate bunch of former Barnes students, teachers, trustees, and art critics have to say. If these charitable foundations can raise $150 million to move the Barnes, can’t they use the same money to preserve it where it is? But why should they? The Barnes in the quiet, residential Merion will never be a popular tourist spot but the Barnes in the middle of the city, right next to the Museum of Art, will be the Disneyland of art world. It is impossible to not cringe when the mayor of Philadelphia gleefully announces that moving the collection downtown will have “the economic impact of three Super Bowls without the beer.

But the documentary is also frustratingly shallow. It paints the entire problem in broad strokes: the Philadelphia Philistines vs. the Friends of Barnes. It doesn’t take very long or very hard to realize that the tactic used to wrest control of the collection and the reasons for moving the collection were ethically and legally suspect. But the documentary spends so much time exposing the villains of the piece that it fails to build a convincing argument as to why the move must be opposed at all cost. It fails to answer the most basic question that any viewers will have: Even if the move was motivated by greed, is it a truly bad thing if a lot of people get to see these great works of art as a result?

The entire argument seems to revolve around the fact that it was Barnes’ collection and only he should get to decide what happens to his collection. This, to me, is a dangerous argument—what if Barnes ordered the entire collection to be destroyed upon his death. It is after all HIS art and he could roll it in his pipe and smoke it if he wanted to, right? Would the Friends of Barnes be out on the street with placards demanding that Philadelphia make a bonfire of the entire collection?

The documentary fails to explore the question of art and ownership. Sure nobody has the right to destroy a man’s will but should great art be held hostage to a dead man’s wishes? Doesn’t art belong to everyone—even the weekend tourist?

But I must clarify my own stand first: I wholeheartedly support the Friends of Barnes. I think the Barnes should stay in Merion. And this is why the documentary is so frustrating. It undermines its own argument by refusing to explain precisely why the collection MUST be housed in the Barnes Foundation gallery. It can’t be just the arrangements or the size of the rooms; the Philistines are planning to replicate the arrangements downtown. It merely takes at face value Matisse’s statement that “the Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America.

Even though the documentary gets some very sharp and intelligent people—art writer, John Anderson; L.A. Times art critic, Christopher Knight; and NAACP chairperson, Julian Bond—to tell the story; the documentary does a shoddy job of constructing its argument. The film never sufficiently explains that it is not just the paintings inside the building but the entire building that is worth preserving. The importance of the Barnes Foundation as a cultural and historic monument is merely stated (in a rather hurried manner) but never explained. The philanthropies that are planning the move will tell you with eye-popping sincerity that they only want to make the art accessible to more people but what they don’t realize is that they are destroying the village in order to save it. The most poignant images in the documentary are of the bare, denuded walls of the Barnes Foundation.

The Barnes Foundation is a unique and distinct way of experiencing art. It was put together with loving care by a deeply passionate and knowledgeable collector, who wanted to create an intimate experience for serious art students and art lovers. The entire Foundation is a jewel box—a work of art—and should be treated as such.

Despite its flaws, the documentary is energetic and it is a joy to see that some of the intelligent, articulate supporters, who appear numerous times in the documentary, do not shy away from taking to the streets or shouting “Philistines” at people who have engineered the move. Unfortunately none of the protesting or petitioning seems to have worked, the court upheld it decision to move the collection to Philadelphia. The Barnes collection is slated to move from Merion in 2012. So those of you who can, go visit the original. As for me, at the end of the documentary, I was left with impotent anger at a case badly argued and at the destruction of a fragile and beautiful idea.

Posted in: Documentary