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  •  REVIEW: THE ART OF THE STEAL

    Dr. Albert Barnes in the foundation he created before his death in 1951. in The Art of the Steal
    Dr. Albert Barnes in the foundation he created before his death in 1951.

    Closing the Barnes' door

    "The Art of the Steal" makes the controversy over moving a bunch of paintings surprisingly interesting — whether you ultimately agree with the outrage or not.

    By JOSHUA TANZER
    Offoffoff.com

    Wealthy art collector Albert Barnes made one key mistake: he died heirless.

      
    THE ART OF THE STEAL
    Directed by: Don Argott.
    Produced by: Sheena M. Joyce.
    Cinematography: Don Argott.
    Edited by: Demian Fenton.
    Music by: West Thordson.

    Related links: The Barnes Foundation
     SCHEDULE
    Walter Reade Theater
    Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam
    (212) 875-5600
    Sept. 29, 2009, 9:15 p.m.

     RELATED ARTICLES
    New York Film Festival, 2009
    • Overview
    • Antichrist
    • The Art of the Steal
    • Broken Embraces
      • Police, Adjective
    • Precious
    • Wild Grass
    "If you have anything, have children," film producer Sheena Joyce commented after a New York Film Festival screening.

    Barnes, the subject of the documentary "The Art of the Steal," left behind a multibillion-dollar collection of art, a will, and a battle royale. The film makes the point that if he had left any children to carry on his legacy, the art institution he left behind might not be getting torn to shreds by covetous millionaires and billionaires now. It's turned into quite a drama, and "Rock School" director Don Argott has made a surprisingly dramatic film about this controversy over some paintings.

    Rather than recount this story as a history lesson, chronologically, dutifully exalting the heroes and excoriating the villains, it's probably more interesting to describe it in stages, according to the layers of interpretation that you might put on it.

    Layer 1: Save the art!

    Okay, so the thing is, the Barnes collection is out in the quiet, leafy Philadelphia suburbs in a sort of stone temple built in MCMXXIII, to which the old man gave a multimillion-dollar endowment and a strict set of instructions before his death in 1951. But the building now leaks and it lacks parking and there are too many tourists to handle and the endowment isn't what it used to be, and for a whole variety of reasons, the patriarchs of Philadelphia now see fit to pick up the art and make a new building for it in the city and put it there.

    Protesters rally to keep the collection in Lower Merion, Pa. in The Art of the Steal  
    Protesters rally to keep the collection in Lower Merion, Pa.
      
    "It's too small. It's too small. The ... Building ... Is ... Too ... Small," says Gov. Ed Rendell. Plain and simple. It makes sense.

    Layer 2: But wait, you can't do that!

    This is where the adventure begins. If it were "The Da Vinci Code," there would be a secret document hidden behind a Picasso or something, but in this case there is a document and it is no secret. It's Dr. Barnes' "indenture" (let's just call it his will) that spells out EXACTLY how the foundation will be run forever.

    It is an educational institution, not a museum. The doors will not be flung open to the tourist horde, nor will visitors be allowed in more than two days a week. The art will not be sold or even lent out to museums — it will stay on the wall, exactly as Dr. Barnes left it. It will be administered by Dr. Barnes' own protégée, and after her death, by a small nearby university. Forever. End of story.

    One by one, every single rule has been or is in the process of being violated, and the foundation's defenders (including undoubtedly the filmmakers, although they insist they are not doing any axe-grinding themselves) are left pointing to the will and sputtering, "But ... but ... but ... that's illegal ... it says right here ... you can't ... uh ... wait ... stop ..." And they are undoubtedly 100 percent right. Legally. But the system is not listening.

    Layer 3: It's not just wrong — it's a conspiracy!

    In case you thought this was just some tedious, detail-obsessed documentary about a bunch of paintings and legal documents that only an estate lawyer could love ... Wrong! There's intrigue and skullduggery! It's the little guy (well, okay, a billionaire, and he's dead) against the big guns! The lone visionary fighting The Man!

      
      Does it really matter that we continue to fight a 60-year-old feud between two dead guys? Well, no, not really. That is not our fight, it need not go on forever — and most importantly, it has nothing to do with the art. Let it die.
      
    Nobody is really doing what's best for the poor paintings — this whole art-grab is a secret back-room maneuver undertaken to rob the good Dr. Barnes of his brilliantly amassed collection and deliver it to the hands of his lifelong enemies. (Or their heirs. Or their museum. Or simply the whole city of Philadelphia. Or something else. Something bad, at any rate.) The state has abetted the "steal" by secretly approving $100 million for the new museum before there was even a plan to move out of the old one. This kind of money, critics point out, would be several times more than the existing site would need to ensure its future.

    There's a whole trail of historical connections explaining the injustice that's going on, and the film traces them skillfully. I feel like I agree — or at least I'm willing to go on that ride. But then I think about ...

    Layer 4: The bottom line

    What is the real value at stake here? I found myself asking that question repeatedly during the movie.

    "The Art of the Steal" places a value on defending Barnes' vision, and that's one point of view. If Barnes created something great, then it makes a certain kind of sense to conserve that.

    But what if your priority is simply to let people see paintings? Well, then there's no question about it — move them to Philadelphia ASAP. Does it really matter that we continue to fight a 60-year-old feud between two dead guys? Even if we follow the film's lead and we come to like Albert Barnes and loathe Walter Annenberg, do we have some obligation to vindicate him in death? Well, no, not really. That is not our fight, it need not go on forever — and most importantly, it has nothing to do with the art. Let it die.

    Instead, what about posing a couple of intermediate questions that aren't about good guys or bad guys, personalities or control issues?

    First, does a collection have its own value that exceeds the value of the paintings in it? Fundamentally, do these paintings need to be kept together? It's unclear to me that a certain Cezanne MUST be hung next to a certain Monet until the end of time because one person saw it that way in 1930. To me, the paintings, not the collection, are the authentic creation — and the paintings do not exactly "belong" to the collector. Many were born before him and all have outlived him. He used his money to corral them while he was alive, but that makes him merely their keeper. It's vain to think one can dictate to the future. The future will have its own ideas.


      
    To me, the paintings, not the collection, are the authentic creation — and the paintings do not exactly "belong" to the collector. Many were born before him and all have outlived him. He used his money to corral them while he was alive, but it's vain to think one can dictate to the future. The future will have its own ideas.  

      
    And second, is it better to isolate all these masterpieces from the general public or throw open the gates? There is an argument that quality should be reserved for people who are capable of recognizing it. The experience of an art student beholding a painting in blissful tranquility might indeed be more important than that of a tourist "doing" a museum in an hour while schoolchildren herd boisterously past. But this is also not obvious. How many schoolchildren does one art aficionado outweigh? Five? Ten? A hundred? The relatively secluded Barnes building out in the suburbs is rationing its art by being exclusive and hard to get to. If that's supposed to be its value, it deserves to be debated.

    (Oh, and I have a third question: Are we even going to be experiencing art the same way in 20 or 30 years? We might have precise 3-D replicas of a million paintings implanted in our brains by then — and will this dispute about which stony edifice best showcases the originals still look so massively important by then?)

    Obviously, these are not questions with clear, direct answers. They deserve to be pondered, and the merits of both sides recognized. The film has made a fine and even entertaining case in defense of the Barnes Foundation, and you can consider it for yourself. I remain undecided.

    SEPTEMBER 24, 2009
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on The Art of the Steal:

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