Home > Art, Film, Reviews > Film Review: The Art of the Steal

Film Review: The Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal (2009; Directed by Don Argott)

Nicely crafted but astoundingly one-sided, The Art of the Steal is another example of that most American of “progressive” message entertainment: the underdog story where the underdog is incredibly wealthy, attractive, or talented, or all three. And yet we’re still supposed to consider them plucky and genuine and worth rooting for.

As an exemplification of the way that the field of play overwhelmingly favours the U.S. monied elite, this documentary nonetheless has its notable points. It tells the story of the private art collection of Albert C. Barnes,  a wealthy Philadelphia-based scientist who used his earnings in the early 20th Century to purchase a large number of then-unfashionable and thus fairly inexpensive Modernist and Post-Impressionist works of art and exhibit them idiosyncratically in his suburban Philly home. His collection includes nearly 200 Renoirs, dozens of Picassos, Cezannes, and Matisse (including a specially-commissioned piece by the latter in a ceiling alcove of the museum-house) and, after his death, was valued at somewhere around $25 billion.

The Barnes Foundation that he left his collection to after his death in his scrupulous will was tasked with preserving the complete collection in his chosen arrangement and location in Lower Merian, Pennsylvania. It also had specific stipulations about limiting the number of visitors to the collection and to use the art mainly for educational purpose, following his particular methodology.

Although a pupil of his followed his will for many years until her death, recent decades have seen a succession of shifting developments in the collection’s administration and the Foundation’s financial fortunes and board leadership that saw the collection go on a lucrative international tour (Toronto’s AGO was among the museums that hosted it), sustain larger crowds of visitors than Barnes’ chosen suburban site could support, and finally has seen it relocate to a more accessible building on downtown Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just down the way from the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art. Opening this past May, this new site completes the collection’s move into the world of corporatized mass-attendance blockbuster fine art exhibition that Barnes’ will was careful to provide against, and much of the documentary’s outrage is directed at this contravening of his stated posthumous wishes.

But the whole argument for the Barnes Collection staying where it is (or was) comes across as epically snobbish, to say nothing of it being swamped by its own persecution complex. Is the ideal of art really for it to be seen by as few people as possible, to be so completely controlled by the idiosyncratic whims of its owner alone? And what truly separates Barnes’ vision for his collection from the similar exhibitings of the collections of Isabel Stewart Gardner in Boston or Henry Clay Frick in New York? I can sympathize with the Friends of the Barnes’ anti-corporate-capitalism views, certainly, but the art world, so lucrative and so prestigious, seems like an odd place to try and impose them.

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Categories: Art, Film, Reviews
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