Documentary films are like lawyers. They have an argument they want to make and the film is their day in court to persuade the jury, in this case, the viewer. A good documentary will convince you of that argument with passion and spirit. Few documentaries that I’ve seen have gotten me as fired up and irritated as The Art of the Steal, about the Barnes art collection and the legal struggle for control of it.
At the heart of the story is the estimated many times over multi-billion dollar post-Impressionist art collection that Dr. Albert C. Barnes personally put together. The collection, for any art fan, is mind boggling: including among its some 9000 pieces 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 14 Modiglianis. It also served as the focus of his school, the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA just outside of Philadelphia. The collection was not open to the public; it was not a museum. This is one of the keys of Barnes’ philosophy with the purpose that the art not be commercialized and that it was for educational purposes. In the 1920s, Barnes did, however, let his art be shown in Philadelphia. The response was extremely negative. It was partly this rejection by the Philadelphia art elites that made Barnes turn his back on the city.
Long story short, Barnes created a trust for his collection and foundation. It explicitly stated that the art was never to be moved. It was never to be sold. It was never to be separated. The collection could be open to the public for a few days a week but was to be chiefly for educational purposes. After Barnes died, popular taste in art had changed and, eventually, the trust responsible for his foundation fell into unsympathetic hands. This led to the collection doing a world tour, going as far as Tokyo, Japan, and eventually the City of Philadelphia made a move to take control of the collection.
As the film is from 2009, watching it is sad because you already know the outcome. Or, at least, as a Philadelphia-area local I did. Spoiler alert: the Barnes art collection is now on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in its own building.
Obviously I’ve glossed over a lot of the finer points (as well as the arguments and statements of those in favor of the changes that were made to the Barnes collection). To say there are some politics involved is a gross understatement. The Art of the Steal is a moving and well-executed documentary that makes a strong case.