“The main function of the museum has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts.” – Albert C. Barnes
The Art of the Steal tells the story of Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his Foundation, its champions and its enemies. John Street, Mayor of Philadelphia, speaks before an assembly and can’t even remember whether the Barnes is in Merion or Lower Merion. The Barnes, the largest single collection of art in the world, estimated to be worth a staggering $25 to $30 billion, is scheduled to be moved to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012. The documentary covers the long, winding, sketchy road that led to this coup.
One-hundred and eighty-one Renoirs, fifty-nine paintings by Matisse including The Joy of Life, forty-six Picassos, seven Van Goghs, six Seurats. Arranged by aesthetic value rather than periods or artists, no museum in the world matches the diversity and presentation of works at the Barnes—founded in 1922 as an educational institution open to all students and admirers of art. Even the disgraced Barry Munitz, former President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, whose collection spans a campus of seven buildings overlooking Los Angeles says, “It is not a little place. It’s an absolutely essential, critical, earth-shakingly important place.”
An interesting side-note: Stephen Salisbury’s October 28, 2001, article “Painted Into a Corner?” appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer quoting Mr. Munitz speaking of the Barnes’ financial troubles, “”If they [the Barnes Foundation] cannot energize the community, the question must be asked: Should they exist? The jury is still out.” This is, of course, the same Mr. Munitz who was forced to resign from the Getty’s board over approvals of exorbitant severance packages and expense budgets.
Dr. Barnes made his fortune in the early twentieth century developing a silver nitrate-based antiseptic, Argyrol, which was instrumental in preventing gonorrheal blindness in newborns. He was introduced to art before it became a commodity in the modern world. His acquisitions were driven largely by aesthetics, rather than perceived value. Less interesting paintings have gone on market for $8 million to $35 million at Sotheby’s. “Some pictures are unattractive and significant. Some paintings are attractive and insignificant. This painting is both unattractive and insignificant,” says art dealer Richard L. Feigen while standing next to an unremarkable specimen of Matisse’s work. He just looks ill when he thinks about what the Barnes collection is worth, intrinsically, compared to the overinflated auction market for lesser works.
Jay Raymond, a former student and teacher at the Barnes, underscores the importance of the Barnes. “The realization of a set of ideas,” he calls it. Barnes put the works together in a natural setting, juxtaposing different artists in ways that tell a story about humans. “The basic fundamental experience of life is the same,” says Mr. Raymond. “Art isn’t something separate from life. It is life.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer was the voicebox of Walter Annenberg who, like William Randolph Hearst, used his publishing empire to influence and threaten other power-brokers to his advantage. Mr. Annenberg, the film argues, was one of several moguls threatened by Dr. Barnes’ sensibilities.
The documentary takes an interesting turn when it presents former foundation president, Richard S. Glanton (1990-1998) as the seeming antagonist, set on controverting Dr. Barnes’ wishes. Glanton hardly mentions the art, or education. “I’ and “me” are his most frequently used pronouns, and it’s amusing how oblivious he is to his own ego. The plot twist is that Mr. Glanton kept Philadelphia from getting their hands on the collection, but it plays like a badly-scripted drama where you’re wondering why Mr. Glanton and his opposition in Merion didn’t discuss the one thing that would have made his true motives clearer.
This is not a simple crime. No one is entirely innocent or guilty. Those who meant well were myopic to the longer-term complications of running the foundation, keeping it up against inflation which would undoubtedly whittle away at the returns from the initial $10 million trust. Those like Mr. Glanton who had ideas which would have retained control of the collection under the Barnes were instantly vilified. The failure of one side to work out a compromise with the other led inexorably to the decimation of the Barnes.
David D’Arcy of The Art Newspaper called the move the creation of a “McBarnes.” Those communities, he says, that talk of becoming world class cities have no identity of their own… and Philadelphia, he argues, was trying to steal one for itself. Even Fox 29, owned by Rupert Murdoch who acquired $3.2 billion of Walter Annenberg’s media empire in 1988, raised the point that if the Barnes Foundation was able to raise the money for the move, they should have been able to raise the money to maintain the Barnes where it was located. The Foundation’s expanded Board voted against this, knowing that the Barnes in Merion would fail, giving the state its ammunition to make the move happen.
The PEW, the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundation control the Barnes. But the mastermind, the film posits, may have been Philadelphia billionaire and philanthropist Ray Perelman. But the film doesn’t completely connect these dots. This isn’t a bad thing, however, and other documentarians could learn something from it. The argument presented is not conclusively declaring a conspiracy and naming players. The film examines the roles of all those involved, and only points out that Dr. Barnes’ wishes clearly had not been honored. It plants enough seeds of doubt for you, the viewer, to ponder the ethics of what transpired. There is too much emphasis in America on being perceived right than actually getting your facts straight, yet here the director smartly presents what facts they do have and stops short of making tenuous accusations.
That tens of thousands of years of human and cultural progress could manifest itself in a work of art, only to be completely desecrated in less than a half-century by commoditization to the advantage of public and private power-brokers is the great tragedy.
The punchline to this travesty: The sign for the new Parkway gallery is unveiled, just behind a parking meter.
“The Barnes is the only sane place to see art in America.” – Henri Matisse
The Art of the Steal • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 • Running Time: 118 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures