The Documentary The Art of the Steal Implicates the American Museum in a Cultural Conspiracy

The story of Albert C. Barnes’ collection could stop at the quantity of jaw-dropping works the tycoon and art collector managed to get his hands on. Here is a man who found himself with the right taste, with the right means, and in the right place at the right time. Collecting in the early twentieth century, Barnes began to purchase works by emerging European artists who were thumbed at the time by the artistic establishment, people like Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir and Modigliani. Barnes was meticulous and thorough in his collecting, with an eye that zeroed in not only on works by seminal artists, but often their best pieces. As a result Barnes established one of the finest collections of art in the world. Appraisers laugh when asked how much it is worth. Billions of dollars doesn’t come close – it is beyond priceless.

But that is not the story told in the documentary The Art of the Steal which opens Friday, April 2 at the Angelika Film Center. What is even more fascinating is what happened to Barnes’ collection after his death. The millionaire was gruff and misanthropic. He had been scorned by the art establishment as well as the powerful elite of Philadelphia (where he lived). He had no interest in handing over his collection to any institution, instead drafting what he hoped was an air-tight will that would keep it in the building and art school in suburban Pennsylvania that Barnes had built for it. The art was important to Barnes, but so was how you encountered and viewed the art.

Unfortunately, Barnes had reason to be concerned for his art, and his will was not as air-tight as he had thought. Very soon after his death various institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum and the Philadelphia Inquirer, began their attempts to have their say with the future of the work. A decades-long battle ensued surrounding the question of what was the appropriate setting for the collection and what level access there should be.  Should the Barnes Collection be open to the public? Should it be moved into Philadelphia where it could be viewed by more people? What sounds like mere curatorial concerns turn out to have wider implications in The Art of the Steal because they go to the very heart of the nature of art and the role of modern museum.

When Henri Matisse visited the Barnes collection, he said it was the only sane place in America to view art. What Matisse meant, it seems from the film, was that the work in the Barnes collection was not paraded forth like spectacle, something to gawk at – to marvel at its apparent cultural significance. Barnes believed that to bring this work into a museum where hundreds of thousands of tourists and schoolchildren would parade would change not just its meaning and impact, but also something about the very nature of the work. Various cultural institutions argued that the significance of the collection has a great value to society and that it belongs in the public domain – available to all. The end game of this conflict offers insight into the workings of some of the nation’s largest non-profits and foundations, revealing corporate behemoths that run a cultural industry where the stakes and rewards as high as Wall Street.

Main image: Albert C. Barnes, still from Art of the Steal

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