Review: The Art of the Steal

By  · Published on March 5th, 2010

If a major American city wants to be taken seriously as a cultural center, it needs a world-class art museum. Such institutions are a ubiquitous presence everywhere from New York City to Birmingham, Alabama, usually housed in imposing structures that contain thousands of works drawn seemingly from every conceivable era and culture, displayed in precise, carefully calculated ways.

To conceive of them as villainous corporate entities requires a considerable leap of faith. The admirable pursuit of bringing art to the masses, the fundamental aim of any nonprofit cultural institution no matter how large, does not lend itself to the same measures of outrage as the activities of the other money grubbing behemoths that dominate 21st century society.

Yet Don Argott, in his documentary The Art of the Steal, asks his audience to cast aspersions on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pew Charitable Trusts and just about the entirety of the city’s civic apparatus. That he so ably perpetuates a measure of disgust toward them is a testament to how convincingly he renders the David vs. Goliath element of the story of the struggle over the Barnes Foundation, the private, robust collection of artwork that the Philadelphia intelligentsia aims to move from its home in the suburb of Merion, PA to the city.

Argott traces the foundation’s long story with a straightforward, linear approach. The picture begins at, well, the beginning, exploring Dr. Albert C. Barnes’ accusation of his fortune through his development of the antiseptic drug Argyrol, his accumulation of vast quantities of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henry Matisse and other legends, and his establishment of the Barnes Foundation.

He saw the Barnes Gallery, the centerpiece of the foundation, as a place for education, a way to free art from the tight grip of the aristocracy and make it available in a meaningful, albeit limited, way. His will left strict instructions for the gallery’s preservation, demanding that the unusual, congested display of the works on its walls be maintained and adamantly insisted that it never be moved to Philadelphia.

Dr. Barnes never had children, so upon his death in 1951 he gave control of the foundation to the African-American college Lincoln University, the start of a tumultuous half-century marked by competing, labyrinthine interests trying to get control of what one expert deems art worth $25 billion. With talking heads on both sides of the debate, helpful graphics and ample archival footage Argott clearly, concisely lays out the timeline that speeds us to the present struggle that’s captured a city.

Argott frames the court battle between the Barnes Foundation and its influential backers and the small group deeming itself Friends of the Barnes Foundation as the encapsulation of the age-old conflict between the forces of greed and good. To him, one side respects the wishes of the man, fighting to preserve the legacy he bequeathed to future generations, while the other embodies the cultural bartering and commodifying that’s fundamentally changed the way we view art. Though Argott gives Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and others the opportunity to express their support for the move – he also claims to have attempted, unsuccessfully, to get members of the foundation’s board to talk – he frames the situation with palpable, compelling distaste for their position.

The picture works because Argott effectively draws out the emotions of those opposed to the move. In stark terms, his interview subjects reveal the reasons they have pursued their labor of love, their pride in Barnes’ Merion heritage and their belief that the wishes of such a generous man be respected. Rendell and his cronies come across as fat cats, interested in swooping in and making a steal. As the film develops it becomes a challenge to resist its maker’s skillful manipulations, to avoid being intrigued by all the maneuvering and moved from a human standpoint, even if his aim to transform the micro situation into a grander cultural statement falls flat.

The movie ultimately leaves little more than a fleeting emotional impact, however, because the filmmaker fails to viscerally convey the outrage of those working against the move in a way that lasts once the lights come up. He might well be hamstrung by the fact that one needs to actually visit the gallery to really share in those feelings. In a world rife with real problems, it’s hard to be too angered by the idea of moving a museum to a more populated area and giving more people the chance to experience it, no matter what its founder might have wished.

The Upside: The movie is a compelling historical document with a lot of compelling footage and candid interviews.

The Downside: It’s also a conventional, straightforward investigatory piece that never really inspires activist passion.

On the Side: Don Argott, who lives in Philadelphia, also directed the documentaries Rock School and Two Days in April.

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