The Art of the Steal is the story of The Barnes Foundation and it’s founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a cantankerous philanthropist of Philadelphia. With a fortune derived from the development of the antiseptic drug Argyrol in the early 1900’s, Dr Barnes managed to assemble what is now the largest collection of high quality Post-Impressionist and early Modern art in the world. The upper echelon of the art world basically ignored what are now considered some of the best works of artists such as Van Gogh, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, and Cezanne. Essentially, a collection of works the envy of museums worldwide.
Dr Barnes created a school near Philadelphia in which to house these works. With its anti-authoritarian philosophy making the art more accessible to the common man, and frustratingly out of reach of the elitist establishment of the art world, the stage is set for conflict between the have’s and the have not’s. Ironically, the have’s (the mover’s and shakers of high society in Philadelphia) and the have not’s (The Barnes Foundation) have seemed to switch roles in this documentary.
The plot of the story is essentially the details of the drama and intrigue, some even charge conspiracy, entangled in the battle for control of the legacy of the Barnes Foundation, and of the collection of art itself, recently valued at more than $25 billion. The lineage of successors left in charge of the foundation after Dr. Barnes’ death is detailed. As well as how the foundation struggled to maintain and develop its philosophy, and the eventual transfer of control power to Lincoln University, a historically black college, in an attempt to keep the foundation under the control of like-minded individuals.
The documentary is wonderfully edited, well presented, and entertaining when appropriate. While both sides of the battle are given representation, the filmmaker’s bias is evident in that the focus of the film is definitely on the side of the Barnes Foundation. Illuminating the multitude of injustices, court room legal manipulations, even a congressional bill with a mysterious anonymously authored earmark which slipped under the radar until it was far to late to prevent the railroading of the legacy of Dr. Barnes. If this film hasn’t left you feeling a little bit disgusted with the legal system, you haven’t been paying attention.
RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.
Pro: informative and entertaining, this film highlights the story of how one man’s vision for the community was corrupted in the interests of outside influences. The soundtrack is well suited to the atmosphere of the film
Con: the greed and corruption exposed in this film leaves one feeling a little jaded about the values of those in control of the art establishment
The Art of the Steal is now showing at the UICA