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Movie Review: The Art of the Steal

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 7, 2010 at 3:32 a.m.

— A highly partisan and energetic documentary by Don Argott (Rock School), The Art of the Steal details the efforts of the city of Philadelphia, especially the city’s former Mayor John F. Street (who early on is introduced as “the mayor of arts and culture”) to move a fabulously rich, privately held art collection from the nearby suburb of Merion to downtown Philadelphia.

If that sounds like a rather mundane subject for a movie, consider this: Albert C. Barnes, a chemist who made a fortune by developing a drug to treat gonorrhea, specifically stated in his will that his art collection - which includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis and seven van Goghs and now has an estimated value of about $25 billion - should remain at the foundation he established in Merion. Barnes was a cantankerous and willful figure, a self-made man from workingclass roots who apparently hatedthe airs of main line Philadelphia. He especially hated the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Barnes was obviously seriousabout his collection, and his antipathy toward the Philadelphia elite - especially the Annenberg family, which published the Philadelphia Inquirer and contributed lavishly to the museum. Before he died in 1951, he had a team of lawyers draw up what they believed was an iron-clad document that would keep the collection together, at the Barnes Foundation he established in Merion, and out of the clutches of the Museum of Art.

Argott’s film examines, in sometimes confusing detail, the events that occurred after Barnes’ death that eventually led to the collection moving five miles into the city. The first crime - andArgott’s film does not shy away from charges of larceny - occurred when Richard Glanton, the president of the small, predominantly black Lincoln University, an institution Barnes entrusted with control of his collection, violated Barnes’ wishes by putting the collection on tour.

Glanton’s ambitious overspending ate into the Barnes endowment, allowing the Philadelphia establishment a chance to “rescue” the collection, by breaking Barnes’ will and moving his paintings downtown to the Museum of Art. (Construction has begun on a downtown Philadelphia home for the collection and some of the galleries in Merion have already been closed for the expected move in 2012.)

From Argott’s point of view - which, the film readily admits, is informed (and funded) by the views of a former Barnes Foundation student, who “initiated, funded and was intimately involved in the making of” the film - this is no less than one of the great crimes of the century, an ugly usurpation of a great man’s legacy by civic boosters mainly interested in procuring another tourist attraction to go with the statue of Rocky and the Liberty Bell.

Argott doesn’t - and doesn’t have to - give much time to the other side of the story. By moving the collection, the Philadelphia city fathers made it accessible to anyone visiting the museum, not just a few Barnes Foundation students.

Still, while the hyperbolic outrage is entertaining, Argott isn’t interested in doing much more than building acase against those he sees as culture pirates. So he sometimes gives short shrift to his interview subjects; like an attorney cutting off a discursive witness, Argott is interested only in the relevant evidence they have to give. We might have appreciated a less didactic approach, and we would have liked to simply see more of the art at the center of this struggle.

On the other hand, soon all we’ll have to do to see the Barnes Collection is fork over $16 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 05/07/2010

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