The high-pitched documentary “The Art of the Steal,”directed by Don Argott, centers around the passionate debate about the future of the Barnes Foundation and its collection of post-impressionist paintings seen by many in the art world as the most valuable collection of its kind.
As described in the film, Barnes gained wealth in the pharmaceutical industry and became so passionate about quality art that he used his wealth to build this collection. Throughout much of Barnes’ life, the film tells about his great dislike for the political establishment and the media; he meant for the collection to be an art school with limited access, not a public museum. One of the most intriguing parts of the documentary is when it describes how the collection was assembled in such a way as to create a quality experience to those who viewed it. When Barnes died in 1951, he left an indenture of trust outlining how he wanted his foundation to be run, including that the collection shouldn’t be moved, but fast track to around forty years later, and powerful interests begin to take control of the foundation and see a future for the collection in Downtown Philadelphia, as opposed to where it was housed in Lower Merion, PA. While the movie offers passionate stances from both sides, it’s clear the narrative paints the picture of the powerful Philadelphia establishment and other powerful parties ignoring the intentions for the foundation that Barnes outlined in his trust and setting the stage for “the scandal of the art world in modern America.”
This documentary hit home for me for a few reasons. When I was in high school, my mother took me to see some paintings by such masters as Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse, and I’m sure I got to marvel at some of the masterpieces in the Barnes Collection first-hand, during an exhibition at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art in the mid-1990s. This memory has stuck with me throughout my life, and that’s the primary reason this story was of such great interest to me. In addition, it was a timely film for me to see now because of the impressive scenes of Downtown Philadelphia that were shot in the documentary, as that is the city where I spent the first half of my life.