The Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal

The Barnes Collection.

(2009) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Richard H. Glaston, Walter Annenberg, Ed Rendell, Phillip D’Arcy, Rebecca Rimel, Raymond G. Perelman, Bernard C. Watson. Directed by Don Argott

Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia inventor, created a mild antiseptic called Argyrol (based on silver nitrate) in 1899. Used in the treatment of venereal diseases, the drug made him a millionaire by the time he was 35.

With a keen eye for art, he began to amass a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art that up to that time the art establishment had turned its collective nose up at, particularly in Philadelphia where art was more or less background wallpaper for social climbing. When Barnes displayed his collection, the press was so vitriolic in its reviews of his beloved collection he never forgave them, particularly Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In a huff, he established his collection in his home in Lower Merion Township (outside of Philadelphia) and arranged the paintings in ways so that they worked harmoniously with one another, adding an extra dimension to their genius. There the collection sat becoming more and more acclaimed as time went by and the painters he had collected – Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne – became revered as masters. The Philadelphia Museum of Art – the one at the head of the stairs that Rocky Balboa runs up in Rocky – wanted the collection, but Barnes, having seen the art collections of friends wind up in the hands of a museum he considered a cultural house of prostitution, wrote up an ironclad will with the help of the best lawyers of his time.

He stipulated that the collection remain intact; no piece could be sold, moved or loaned. He created a foundation to oversee the collection, limiting public access to it and making it reserving it for the study by art students and those who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to a major collection of that kind. After he died in a 1951 car crash, his will kept predatory hands away from his collection.

After his death there began an epic struggle for control for the collection. On one side is the Barnes Foundation, administered by Lincoln College (an African-American college in the Philadelphia area) and the bluebloods and city fathers of Philadelphia aligned on the other. At stake is a nearly priceless collection that Philadelphia’s politicos saw as a potential tourist attraction that would generate interest worldwide.

The fact is that they did succeed at circumventing Barnes’ will and getting the collection moved from the crumbling Lower Merion facility to a new one in downtown Philadelphia, slated to open later this year. In many ways this is disturbing in that the will of someone who purchased artwork can be contravened by those who seek personal gain from its use, use they didn’t earn.

The movie has one point of view and one point of view only – that of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, who opposed the move and fought it tooth and nail. There are no opposing arguments – although to be fair, none of the opposition agreed to be interviewed for the film – which begs the questions about expanding access of a world-class collection for the world to see, as well as maintaining the facilities that would keep the artwork in the best shape possible for years to come. There is evidence that the Lower Merion facility was in danger of falling into sufficient disrepair that the artworks it housed could be damaged and potentially lost forever. There is also the argument that the art in the Barnes collection deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

The fact is that the artwork was bought and paid for by an individual who made it very clear what his wishes for the disposition of that artwork were. Whether or not that his wishes were in the best wishes of the artwork or of the general public may well be beside the point; whether a city has the right to take eminent domain over a cultural treasure in obviation of the wishes of those with legal control of that treasure. It is a point not explored by the film but then again, perhaps it wasn’t even a question for the filmmaker.

WHY RENT THIS: A very concise, well presented documentary about an outrageous contravening of the will of a Philadelphia art collector.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is literally no other viewpoint but the one of the Friends of the Barnes Collection; in some ways it’s more like propaganda.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but not many.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Barnes Collection includes over 9,000 pieces of art conservatively valued at $25 billion and includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos and 14 Modiglianis.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $544,890 on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood made money.


TOMORROW: Day 1 of Cinema365: From the Heart