The Art of the Steal (Doc of the Week #2)

“As through this world I wander, I see lots of funny men,” Woody Guthrie sang back in 1939, “Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.” Although Guthrie wrote those lines for the song “Pretty Boy Floyd” their relevance echoes far beyond the world of bank robbers and foreclosure-happy branch managers during the Great Depression. An interesting modern manifestation of his bon mot is in the field of art thievery. Here in the Boston area, there’s been much in the news lately about the FBI being close to solving the infamous 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This is a case where old-school bad guys gained entrance by posing as cops, tied up the guards in the basement and made off with a half a billion dollars worth of Rembrandts, Vermeers and Manets. But now there seems to be a more genteel way of relieving museums of their collections and the public of their cultural heritage. The newly-expanded Gardner Museum, like the Barnes Foundation depicted in the film below, was the quirky end product of a maverick art collector, places that (despite the last will and testament of their founders) can be tampered with in an age where top cultural institutions are beginning to look as monolithic as the too-big-to-fail banks.

art of the steal

The Art of the Steal
(Directed by Don Argott—2009—101 minutes)

In “The Art of the Steal”, the corporatization of culture is seen as an invasive, extra-legal force trampling the legacy of the eccentric and combative inventor/art collector Albert C. Barnes, whose extraordinary inventory of early modern paintings were displayed at his semi-private foundation in a Philadelphia suburb. Argott meticulously traces the battle that began after Barnes’ death in 1951 between his foundation and the cultural/political establishment over ultimate control of a collection that came to be valued at around $25 billion. Barnes was born to working-class parents, worked his way through college, and made a fortune inventing an anti-syphilis drug in the days before antibiotics. He was a passionate and prescient art lover and in the depths of the Depression bought up hundreds of canvasses by the likes Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Van Gogh. These works were ridiculed by Philadelphia’s cultural elite as “primitive” and “debased”, cementing Barnes’ disdain for high-society and causing him to decamp to nearby Merion (a mere five miles away from the detested Philadelphia Museum of Art) where he hung the works in quirky galleries and ran an egalitarian art school.

Argott deftly works this story along two parallel tracks: first as a parlor mystery that traces the subtle chipping away at Barnes’ will (which stated in no uncertain terms that the paintings were never to leave the Merion location) by elements both inside and outside of his foundation; and secondly to the greater question of what is the correct dispensation of world culture in an era when individual works of art can easily sell for tens or even hundreds of millions. As the controversy came to a head in the first decade of the 21st century, Argott was there as the institutional powers that be (the successors of those who once belittled Barnes’ tastes) slowly asserted themselves in the idea that the collection was now too great to be left so inaccessible—-and while an opposing protest movement started calling it the greatest art theft since World War II. This elegantly paced and visually striking documentary seems to be a staunch defense of the Barnes Foundation as a “handmade thing in a machine world”, a populist outpost against the relentless commodification of modern life. Others have perceived “The Art of the Steal” as being one-sided (probably a lot of the same people that Argott lists as declining to be interviewed) as the articulate group of talking heads seem to concur more with Barnes’ rebellious worldview, as impractical as it is, than with those who he saw as putting themselves on a “pedestal… to pose as patrons of the arts.” Argott is in effect holding accountable those who are going to get their way in the end anyhow, as good a reason as any for a non-fiction film. It certainly has struck a nerve as Q&A sessions after film festival showings have repeatedly turned into shouting matches, pointing out the strong emotions behind a contentious issue that Argott has brought so memorably to light.

(Those interested in this subject should look into the case of the Seward House Historic Museum in upstate New York. The painting “Portage Falls on the Genesee”, by Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, hung in the house for over 100 years before being summarily removed by museum’s overseer foundation. The canvas, recently appraised for a cool $18 million, was removed under police escort after the foundation’s unilateral decision that it was too valuable to hang in just any old historic home and needed to be sold off to a private collector at auction instead. The shocked museum operators may find only cold comfort in the promise that they will share in the proceeds.)

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