"2009 NR 101 minutes
The Art of the Steal (Taken from Netflix)
A gripping tale of intrigue and mystery in the art world, this film traces the history of the Barnes collection of Post-Impressionist paintings, which was worth billions and became the subject of a power struggle after the 1951 death of the owner. Dr. Albert Barnes collected 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and many other valuable paintings. But the political wrangling over the collection eventually led to its division." - Netflix
The Art of the Steal (2009)
Manifesto From the Battle for the Barnes CollectionMoney, power, race, a mansion stuffed with treasure, a city plagued by scandal — about all that’s missing from “The Art of the Steal,” a hard-hitting documentary about a high-cultural brawl, is a hot woman with a warm gun. At the heart of the movie, energetically directed and argued by Don Argott, is the celebrated Barnes Foundation, which houses a private collection in suburban Philadelphia (here, a city of brotherly love and loathing) groaning with European masterworks, African sculptures, Asian prints, American Indian ceramics, among other items. The foundation even owns a farmhouse furnished with decorative arts, and its surrounding 12-acre arboretum is filled with rare flora from around the globe.
It isn’t the Chilean monkey puzzle tree, though, that has had curators, academics, journalists and politicians pointing fingers and crying foul in recent years: it’s the art, especially the post-Impressionist and early Modernist paintings signed by the likes of Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet and Van Gogh. Amassed by a working-class striver turned collector named Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), these paintings are the glittering prizes in the foundation that bears his name and that in total has been valued at more than $25 billion, though the collection is sometimes breathlessly described as priceless. In his will Barnes stipulated that the collection was to remain in its original locale, far from the reach of the Philadelphia elite he despised.
But contracts can be broken, wills challenged, legacies dismantled. And in the years after Barnes’s death, the collection became the focus of a fascinating fight among an array of interests. Much of the louder part of the battle involved its location: some wanted it to stay put, thereby honoring Barnes’s wishes. Others wanted it moved to Philadelphia, where it would be more accessible and, of course, could become a desirable, lucrative tourist attraction. Mr. Argott wisely doesn’t pretend that any of this is a mystery: shortly after some introductory text, he shows the former Philadelphia mayor John F. Street announcing the foundation’s planned relocation to the city, joking how he had biked past the original site recently and waved, “See you soon.”
Mr. Argott also doesn’t feign disinterest. As its title suggests, “The Art of the Steal” is nothing if not agenda-driven, having been paid for by a former foundation student, Lenny Feinberg, who — to quote the movie’s notes — “initiated, funded and was intimately involved in the making of ‘The Art of the Steal.’ ” That partisanship helps explain the movie’s vibrancy and sense of urgency. Construction on a new central Philadelphia home for the foundation began last year, and some galleries in the original building have already been closed for the expected move in 2012. Although a judge in 2008 refused to consider a request for a new hearing by opponents of the move, the fight continues off the screen and, now, on.
But while its bias enlivens the movie — nothing perks up talking heads like outrage — it eventually also weakens it. “The Art of the Steal” features loads of smart, witty, elegant tastemakers and cultural elites, including Christopher Knight, the art critic for The Los Angeles Times, and Julian Bond, the civil rights activist whose father once ran Lincoln University, the historically black institution to which Barnes willed control of his foundation. Both Mr. Knight and Mr. Bond have interesting things to say about the collection, its complex history and scandalous present. But because of how Mr. Argott has pieced together his movie, or, more precisely, constructed his argument — pitting critics and curators against less persuasive figures, like Pennsylvania’s bullish governor, Edward G. Rendell — these distinctive voices soon blur.
That’s too bad because surely there are more nuanced arguments for the move than those found here, which could only strengthen the documentary, saving it from caricature. At times the fight comes across as a smackdown between art snobs who want to preserve Barnes’s right to exhibit his masterworks however he wanted because, well, he paid for them (a curiously underexamined refrain), and vulgarians who want to turn his patrimony into tourist bait along with the Liberty Bell and an actor in a Ben Franklin getup. What remains unanswered, finally, is the larger question of whether deep pockets ensure custodial rights forever.
Even so, though Mr. Argott stacks the deck heavily, and while his movie is, like many documentaries these days, overly indebted to Errol Morris (enough with the Philip Glass already), “The Art of the Steal” is often very fine. Serving as his own cinematographer and working with the editors Demian Fenton and Judah-Lev Dickstein, Mr. Argott marshals a wealth of archival and new material, expertly weaving interviews together with still photographs, home movies, television reports, newspaper clippings and even charts. One weakness is the too-brief, tantalizing peeks inside the Barnes. Yet, like the movie as a whole, this limitation comes with dividends: it made me want to hop on a plane to Philadelphia as soon as possible to see the original before it’s emptied.
THE ART OF THE STEAL
Opens on Friday in New York and Philadelphia.
Directed by Don Argott; director of photography, Mr. Argott; edited by Demian Fenton; associate editor, Judah-Lev Dickstein; music by West Dylan Thordson; produced by Sheena M. Joyce; released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. This film is not rated."