Don Argott’s suspenseful The Art of The Steal—which delves deeply into the government and corporate takeover of a beloved private institution, the Barnes Foundation, by the city of Philadelphia and the Pew Charitable Trusts among other “charitable” organizations—is propaganda at its finest. The film follows the gripping saga of the art collection of the visionary Albert C. Barnes, who had the foresight to buy up the best of the best by iconoclasts Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse among other masters while the rest of the stuffy art world turned up its collective nose. In turn, Barnes gave the finger to the rarefied museum establishment by founding a school in Merion, Pennsylvania where the artworks—now estimated to be worth $25 billion—would hang above the faculty and students with limited hours open to the public. This didn’t sit too well with Barnes’s arch-nemeses, the Annenberg family, and the rest of Philly’s notoriously corrupt power brokers.
Divided into chapters with titles such as “The Takeover,” the film deftly employs surreal time-lapse imagery, talking heads, newspaper clippings, and archival legal documents juxtaposed with voiceovers—in other words, every trick in the Errol Morris playbook, including music by Philip Glass that sounds suspiciously like his score for The Fog of War. The battle for control of the Barnes treasure trove began all the way back in 1951 when Barnes was killed in a car accident. His will stated that the art could never be removed from the grounds under any circumstances—a stipulation prompted when the vast collection of Barnes’s own lawyer ended up in the Philadelphia Art Museum against his wishes after he died. As the years wore on, the educational institution Matisse called “The only sane place to see art in America” became the subject of more and more insane attempts at its destruction. To wit, when the Barnes Foundation fell into the hands of Lincoln University, an African-American college that Barnes naively assumed would honor his will, the money-hungry president sent the art on an international tour, then invoked the federal KKK act against the institution’s neighbors protesting the busloads of tourists in their residential community.
In fact, it’s the prostitution of art—and Dr. Barnes’s attempts at its purification—that is at the heart of The Art of the Steal. “Paintings, money, tourism—that’s what people see when they see art,” one former student offers, lamenting the loss of art’s very essence. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, one of the few members of the other side who didn’t decline an interview request, would probably agree. (Though Susan Sarandon, who is caught on camera at what one protestor calls the “predator’s ball,” the party held to celebrate the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s eventual acquisition of the Barnes collection, might not.) Rendell earnestly champions the Philadelphia Museum of Art over the Merion estate because it allows for more people to see the masterworks while simultaneously providing a boost to tourism—a “no brainer,” as he calls it. The fact that Barnes’s core beliefs—that the context in which art is displayed is a part of the art; that a crowded shopping mall atmosphere does not allow for a quality experience—are being swept aside doesn’t even occur to Rendell. This is a perfect example of the classic American, “bigger is always better” arrogance that happened to get us into our current financial fiasco. Rendell and his likeminded colleagues seem to have forgotten that making Philadelphia into a “world class” city is not a function of art, but a misappropriation of it.
Smartly, Argott’s film gets back to the basics by reminding that art is not there to serve us but the other way around. It’s a teaching tool for life that must be respected. While running down the astonishing numbers of great works in the Barnes collection—181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, etc.—one of the former students makes a point of declaring who doesn’t have this amount (i.e, tourist traps The Met and The Louvre). The archival images of the paintings are downright overwhelming, allowing us to understand how one curator who was helping to move the collection had to set down the Van Gogh she was carrying to cry. “This is about who controls 25 billion dollars worth of art and everything else is bullshit,” a dismayed talking head offers at the end. Indeed, it’s that unquestioning mindset that is the real crime.