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On Movies: 'The Art of the Steal' has a distinct perspective on art and commerce

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2010 - As is clear from its title, "The Art of the Steal" does not flinch from a strong point of view. Basically, the documentary contends that powerful men and women in Philadelphia have hijacked one of the greatest private collections of art in the world, defying the intent of the eccentric pharmaceutical manufacturer who assembled the collection and who detested the Philadelphia establishment

Albert Barnes, the movie contends, would have hated to see his magnificent collection moved from where he had put it, in the bosky suburb of Merion, Pa., to a new building on a busy city thoroughfare under the control of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But that appears to be what is going to happen, and that's a victory for money over art.

Or so goes the argument of the movie. The counter-argument, which gets less attention in the movie, is that the collection, one of the most important assemblages of Impressionist, post-Impressionist, early modern and African art in the world, is inadequately and perhaps even unsafely housed in a relatively small, deteriorating old building in a out-of-the-way residential community, thus making it difficult for large numbers of people to see it. The public, the counter-argument goes, is better off with the art in a more accessible location. If Barnes were alive, the proponents of the move would argue, he would reluctantly agree.

What about Barnes' heirs? He had no children, and when he died in 1951 he left control of the collection and the foundation that officially owns it to a small African-American college. At some point in decades of maneuvering and negotiations, the college, Lincoln University, gave up a substantial amount of its control in return for millions of dollars it needed to improve its campus. At least that appears to be the case -- much about the battle for control of the Barnes Foundation over the past half century seems lost in legalese.

There is no question that Barnes strongly preferred that the collection stay where it was. He wanted it to be used as an educational institution, not for the elite, but for ordinary men and women. Barnes wanted to preserve his layout of the collection, with paintings and other works from different periods and genres hung together to illustrate universal themes. An African mask, for example, would hang next to a Picasso that was influenced by it. In Barnes' mind, both were of equal importance in the history of art.

And it is also certain that Barnes hated the Philadelphia establishment, which had scorned his collection when he first exhibited it in Philadelphia in 1923.

However, the movie gives the impression that Barnes would never have permitted moving the art under any circumstances. The filmmakers do not mention a clause inserted by Barnes in the trust indenture setting up the Barnes Foundation that allowed the collection to be moved "to an existing and organized institution in Philadelphia or suburbs" if it ever became "unable to sustain itself." (This information comes from John Anderson's 2003 book on the controversy, "Art Held Hostage.")

In any event, after a lengthy legal proceeding, a Pennsylvania court ruled that the collection could be moved. The move is scheduled to take place in 2012, when a new building for it is completed on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the middle of Philadelphia. Don Argott, director of "Art of the Steal," makes it clear that he (and a lot of other people) think this is a bad idea.

The movie, which tells a fascinating story, leaves some questions open. Do the residents of Merion still oppose having large crowds and tour buses blocking the streets around the foundation in its present location, as they once did? Would it even be possible to fix the current building to meet modern museum standards of conservation? Although the movie makes a potent argument, it is hard to separate fact from advocacy, in part because most proponents of the move, who are portrayed as power-hungry plutocrats and politicians, refused to speak to the filmmakers.

Still, the makers of "The Art of the Steal" raise interesting questions, and not just about the future of the Barnes Foundation. For instance, the dispute in suburban Philadelphia probably never would have broken out, and never would have provoked a feature-length film, if the valuation of the art had not been so high -- now well into the billions of dollars. The relationship of money to art in modern times is a fascinating one -- one that, in a kind of aesthetic circularity, has even provoked some post-modern works by well-known artists (for example, a skull encrusted with jewels).

The film is also valuable for providing glimpses of the glory that is the Barnes collection. It includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis and seven Van Goghs. And, as the film points out, Barnes had excellent taste, and many of the paintings rank among the artists' best. One opponent of moving the collection, a man long associated with the Barnes Foundation, points this out very effectively in the film. He compares a Van Gogh that recently sold for tens of millions of dollars but lacks structure and vibrancy - "Barnes never would have bought this painting," the man says -- with one of the stunning Van Gogh's Barnes did buy, for considerably less than a million dollars.

If you want to see the Barnes collection in its current home in Merion, Pa., you have about two years to do so. You need reservations, and you can make them through the Barnes Foundation website - www.barnesfoundation.org. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.