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'The Art of the Steal' wades into the move of the Barnes collection

The documentary likens the relocation to a hijacking. Critics say the movie presents a one-sided view.

March 11, 2010|By Chris Lee

Call it art appreciation as battle royal.

The emotionally charged new documentary "The Art of the Steal: The Untold Story of the Barnes Collection" takes what might otherwise have remained a local matter of consequence only to art aficionados and blue bloods -- the decision to move a valuable art collection from an affluent Philadelphia suburb into the city's downtown area -- and presents the legal tussle and decades-spanning tug of war surrounding the holding as something decidedly else. Namely, "the biggest act of cultural vandalism since World War II" as the film describes it.

"The more I think about it, the more outraged I get," said "Art of the Steal" director Don Argott of his subject. "If you're not getting angry, you're not paying attention."

As such, the movie, which hits theaters Friday after having its L.A. premiere Tuesday at a sold-out Los Angeles County Museum of Art screening, plays out with all the bottom-line fixation and cloak-and-dagger intrigue of a corporate espionage flick. Early reviews have been mainly positive, with Entertainment Weekly praising the film as a "suspenseful art-world documentary in which the forces of art and money collide ferociously."

And since premiering at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, "Steal" has become a lightning rod for controversy, earning the condemnation of art world grandees, charity officials and most vocally, from the Barnes Foundation -- the very organization that the movie claims is being manipulated and exploited by a shadowy consortium of plutocrats and politicians -- for presenting a one-sided version of the dispute.

Barnes officials, who declined to be interviewed in the movie, have now taken issue with "Steal," balking at the film's premise: That the decision to relocate the collection is tantamount to having it be "hijacked" or "stolen" in a Machiavellian power move that foils the Barnes' original charter.

It gave Bret I. Miller, general counsel for the Barnes Foundation, cause to point out: "You can't steal something from yourself."

Chockablock with post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas and Renoir, the Barnes collection has been valued at more than $25 billion (although "priceless" is how it's often described). Situated amid a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Penn. -- and decidedly off the art tourism grid -- context is crucial to the collection's impact: Marquee works are displayed alongside distinctive arrangements with African sculptures, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture and Navajo rugs.

Argott, the Philadelphia-based documentarian behind "Rock School" and "Two Days in April," presents a compelling argument, positing that the legal system was systematically gamed to get around visionary art patron Albert C. Barnes' dying wishes.

A cantankerous outsider with a pharmaceutical fortune and an unmatched eye for masterworks, he began amassing art in 1912. Moreover, Barnes detested Philadelphia's blue bloods and resolved never to let his collection fall into the hands of local institutions.

So much so, he created an educational foundation to oversee its maintenance and drafted a seemingly ironclad will stating that his collection must never be lent, sold or moved. Before he died, the patron enlisted officials from Lincoln College, a private African American university, to serve as trustees.

And yet, as "Steal" exhaustively lays out via a series of impassioned talking head interviews that left many viewers on the documentary film circuit shaking with anger, after Barnes' death in 1951, battle lines were drawn to challenge his will and legacy.

Some Barnes supporters dug in to keep the collection in place while other parties -- bureaucrats, charity officials and the very arts institutions the patron so despised -- strenuously worked to relocate the collection into the city.

It's a David and Goliath story with the might of organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art thrown into stark relief, depicted as strategically and legally outmaneuvering the Lincoln College trustees to defy the terms established in Barnes' will.

(Pew officials declined to appear on camera in the movie and could not be reached for this article.)

The movie's "a-ha" moments include former Philadelphia mayor (and current Pennsylvania governor) Edward G. Rendell admitting that the initiative to relocate the financially shaky Barnes collection came as part of a planned effort to create an international tourist draw for the city.

And in an uncompensated interview for the documentary, Times art critic Christopher Knight speaks about an explosive story he broke in 2006: how $107 million in state appropriations had been earmarked for the collection's relocation before a county court heard final arguments from a group challenging the move.

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