The Art of the Steal (Don Argott)

This is shameless advocacy—but not about the melt-down, the healthcare crisis, or global warming. It’s all about great art and great power; two words seldom used together when describing a film. And it’s a doozey! Barnesfilm

The art and the talking heads are shot as beautifully as you (or they) could wish. But it’s really the arguments which will intensify your sense of outrage as they reveal one dirty trick after another. In this Big Heist, the State of Pennsylvania, the Pew Memorial Trust, Walter Annenberg, and some none-too-fastidious urban boosters collaborate to snatch the Barnes Foundation’s priceless art collection and move it from its leafy suburban home in Merion, PA, to the big city (Philadelphia).

Albert Barnes used the fortune he earned in the early 20th century to amass a prodigious treasury of mostly modern art (now estimated to be worth $40 billion). True to his beliefs and his roots in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, he wanted to “give back,” and did, by creating a foundation, purchasing an arboretum in Merion, artofthesteal_02building a gallery within it to house the collection, and opening schools of horticulture and art to educate those who wanted to learn. Barnes was an idealist, and his was a long-term plan.

His will stipulated that the arboretum, the art, and the schools remain in Merion in perpetuity; that the collection never be broken up or sold; and that (because of his affinity for African-American culture) it be administered after his death by Lincoln University, then a small African-American college.

But Barnes died prematurely in an auto accident in 1951, and it became clear over time that Lincoln was uneasy with the task of overseeing the compound in Merion. Soon, the collection (escalating steadily in value) drew the attention of more sophisticated interests with a variety of agendas. Alliances were forged. Promises were made. Lawyers were hired. Now, almost 60 years after Barnes’ death, the courts (yes, it came to that) have ruled that a new museum can be built downtown, and the art can move out of Merion, forever. As for Barnes’ will and his good intentions? Good question; bad answer. artofthesteal_04

Think it’s low on the scale of priorities? Think again! The film’s team is not shooting from the hip: they provide documents to back up their claims, and edit them into just the right slots to actually elicit gasps. In fact, the editing and the issues are artfully entwined. Should we laugh or cry? Neither: we should get mad as hell, even if there’s no way to get even!

If you love irony, the end scroll (especially clever) says it all: Walter Annenberg, a key player in the artful heist, whose own modern art collection is worth over $1 billion, gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art upon his death in 2002. He courted immortality by stipulating that the works never be loaned, sold, or moved.

Wow! If I were you, Walter, wherever you are, I’d watch my back. art of the stealBecause stuff happens……


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