At the center of this gripping documentary about the relocation of the Barnes Foundation from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, to downtown Philadelphia are much larger and ultimately unanswerable questions about art and history. Beginning, as it does, with a 2007 press conference given by then mayor of Philadelphia John Street announcing the Foundation's move, Art of the Steal's outcome is clear. As one interviewee puts it shortly thereafter:"This is a story that should have been told as it happened" And yet, the political, economic, ethical and curatorial dramas that follow are so vast, problematic and often murky that they might well have been impossible to parse through as they occurred. It's also unclear how much it would have done to stop the seemingly inevitable art heist that was taking place.
Before addressing the struggle's most contemporary implications—tourism revenue, quasi-corporate power grabs, bribery and fraud—Don Argott establishes other, more personal motivations behind the Barnes coup. The first of many chapters, a biography of Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), sets up the narrative's almost too-perfect class conflict. A poor kid who actually fought in boxing matches to pay for his Ivy League education, Barnes eventually made millions in the pharmaceutical industry and took an interest in Post-Impressionist and early Modern European art. Purchasing works by Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir and Van Gogh decades before Americans would understand their value (aesthetic and financial), Barnes proved a visionary collector. Ridiculed by Philly's conservative upper class for his "primitive" art collection, Barnes' outsider relationship to the city's rich and powerful provides the principal lens through which Don Argot and editor Demian Fenton frame the ensuing power struggles.
By the time the city's high society—especially the film's first of many villains, Philadelphia Inquirer owner Walter Anenberg—understood the value of Barnes' collection, he'd resolved to keep it from them. He established his collection as a school and eclectically hung personal gallery rather than a museum, open only two or three days a week, often only for pre-approved guests, in a semi-rural suburb. Leaving control of the Foundation to a local black college was Barnes' final "fuck you" to the city that he'd once called "a depressing intellectual slum." But without its headstrong owner, who died in a car crash at 78, the Foundation was left to a series of leaders and boards whose squabbling saw the terms of Barnes' will slowly but surely chipped away and crossed out.
In the film's final chapters, the very same members of Philadelphia's elite who originally shunned Barnes and his collection, and then sought greater access to and influence over it, finally manage their long-delayed takeover—in collusion with the mayor, Anenberg, a senator or two and three multi-billion-dollar charities. Though the film's tone is often polemical—one of the many prominent talking heads, a set of curators, writers, protestors, former Barnes board members and art critics, deplores: "It was a handmade thing in a machine world"—this is by no means a completely one-sided doc. For instance, Foundation director Richard Glanton, originally portrayed as an aspiring politician with no appreciation for art or respect for Barnes' vision, turns out to be more prescient and benevolent than many suspected. Similarly, though the collection's highjacking is first and foremost motivated by greed, the Foundation's time in Lower Merion was no less fraught with controversies, disputes and power struggles.
Nevertheless, Art of the Steal leaves little doubt that the violation of a man's will, the fraudulent re-appropriation of his $25 billion art collection and the streamlining of a uniquely rich art experience into a comparatively uniform and sterile glass cube aesthetic was in fact the worst solution to the Barnes Foundation's many but by no means insurmountable problems. Photographs of the emptied building with discolored rectangles on the walls where masterpieces had hung (supposedly never to be removed) provide the documentary's most tragic and heartbreaking images. By the end of the film, an interviewee's claim that we've just witnessed "the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II" hardly seems hyperbolic anymore. Maybe, after all, this story should have been told before its catastrophic ending was written.
Opens February 26