The Art of the Steal

Dr. Albert Barnes was a misanthropic millionaire who lived in Merion, Pennsylvania, a tony suburb of Philadelphia. With his wealth, Barnes amassed a priceless collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early Modern art during the first two decades of the twentieth century. But journalists representing the Philadelphia art establishment dismissed his self-funded exhibition in 1922, and Barnes bore a deep grudge against them until his death in 1951. So he kept his art to himself, opening up the Barnes Foundation in Merion, a disingenuously democratic institution that was designed to educate small groups of art scholars rather than entertain the masses.

After Barnes's trusted assistant, who managed his hugely important – and increasingly valuable – collection for thirty years, passed away in the 1980s, a two-decade-long political battle for Barnes's collection began. The catch: still angry at Philadelphia, and with no legal heirs, Barnes stated clearly in his will that none of his paintings could be sold, loaned, or removed from his museum. Complicating matters, Barnes named a local African American college to be the trustee of his collection.

The story of The Art of the Steal concerns the complicated and often shady wrangling by politicians to move Barnes's collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution the late Barnes allegedly hated.

The problem I have with The Art of the Steal is that it clearly sides with the self-important, somewhat cracked Barnes Foundation fans who think that exposing his collection to millions of tourists is the worst thing imaginable. I might see their side better if the physical shape of the art itself was at risk, due to pollution or germs or whatnot. But this argument is never presented.

Instead, it all comes back to the same two things: 1. Barnes wouldn't have wanted the public to see his works in a large-scale setting, and 2. Tourists are idiots who can't understand art and thus should not be mollified. It is, in my opinion, an obnoxious stance – particularly when the same richie-rich residents of Merion who were incensed when the trustees briefly opened up the Barnes building to tour buses in the '80s now plead to keep the collection in their neighborhood, rather than see it move a mere five miles to Philly. Sorry guys, but I don't buy it.

I can understand the importance of seeing art as it was meant to be seen, and this documentary could have made a stronger point about that. But look: I studied art, I know art history, and I like being able to go to museums and spend time with my favorite paintings without having to make a reservation months in advance for the privilege of getting to see them. I also know that, even for a tourist uneducated about art, going to a museum can open up new horizons. In short, I think there's nothing wrong about letting the public have easier access to America's most significant collection of Post-Impressionist and Modern art, and that those who prefer to have "their" collection (I'm not speaking about the late Barnes himself, but his acolytes) essentially kept under lock and key are, frankly, snobs.

If the film had taken a more even tone, and gave any credence to the argument of displaying Barnes's collection in Philadelphia, it would have been a much more interesting documentary. (The question of whether to honor a dead person's wishes is always a fascinating subject: If J. D. Salinger had written twenty wonderful unpublished novels and ordered the manuscripts burned upon his death, is that right?) Instead, it comes across as a rant – and a somewhat irrelevant rant at that.