Where there’s a will, there’s a way
To look at it, you’d think the Barnes Foundation would be a pillar of propriety, its neoclassical contours and gracious gardens blending in with the shady thoroughfares of Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb community of some 6,000 souls located five or six miles from downtown Philadelphia. It was established in 1922 by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who made his way through medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, struck it rich with a pharmaceutical invention, and, inspired by a high-school classmate, artist William Glackens, became passionate about art. He went to France and bought a lot of it, mounted a show of his acquisitions back home in Philadelphia, and met with disdain from the newspaper critics and high muckamucks of the social set.
This is the background for Don Argott’s captivating documentary The Art of the Steal, which opens Friday, April 23, at The Screen. Probably there wouldn’t have been much of a story to tell if those canvases Barnes shipped back from France hadn’t been painted by the likes of Renoir (181 works), Cézanne (69), Matisse (59), Picasso (46), Van Gogh (seven), Seurat (six) … the list goes on. He believed in the beauty and importance of these works, and, rather than continue to cast pearls before swine, he decided to put them to use how he wanted to: not within a public museum but rather as the backbone of a school for art appreciation built on the principles of the educational theorist John Dewey. Thus was born this quiet, introverted complex in a residential neighborhood that was defiantly not located in Philadelphia, where the old money dwelled. For decades, the collection was a resource for the school’s students and for working people who took the trouble to arrange a visit. An irascible and unforgiving type, Barnes drew up what he considered an ironclad will to ensure that his institution would continue unchanged after his death, supported by his financial endowment and protected from the grasp of the downtown socialites who had scorned him.
‘The Art of the Steal’ should be required viewing for everyone who is touched by the ‘art economy’
of our fair city (and who isn’t?).
The Art of the Steal chronicles how the nabobs got their hands on the art all the same. It’s a serpentine saga that recounts adventures you would never expect: how this staid art school became an asset of a historically black college; how a series of politicos used it to bolster their standing and their sway; how the neighbors in Merion, opposing a director’s dream of a parking lot, were hauled into court through a countersuit filed under — can you believe it? — the federal Ku Klux Klan Act. (“Nonsense,” said the judge.) A financial endowment designed to keep the place ticking is eviscerated by attorneys’ fees. A consortium of Pennsylvania’s A-list philanthropies — the Annenberg Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts — align themselves with Philadelphia’s political establishment to pillage the collection from its home in Merion and build new quarters for it just down the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where, re-created as a “proper” museum, it is scheduled to begin welcoming all comers in 2012. Resentments and jealousies are played out through the generations. Old scores are settled. By the end you’ll feel exhausted, as if you simply can’t handle another twist in this tale. The participants must have felt the same way, worn down by two decades of squabbling and machination.
Argott unrolls his narrative in masterly fashion, articulating his argument through the commentary of central players in the drama as well as a diverse, entertaining assortment of talking heads from both teams. He presents his case persuasively, with the even-handedness of, say, a Michael Moore — which is to say, with none whatsoever. And yet, is this nothing more than a crackpot conspiracy theory? Is it by chance that the three Philadelphia foundations pledge as a consortium to raise $100 million to build a new home for the Barnes collection within city limits, though they will offer nothing to sustain it where it already is; that one of those foundations becomes the virtual manager of the collection and re-incorporates itself in a way
Left, the main gallery in the Barnes Foundation; images courtesy IFC Films
In The Art of the Steal, Nick Tinari protests the proposed new location of the Barnes Foundation’s art collection.