Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - James M. Keller

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.

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