It’s not often that a post-screening Q&A produces big fireworks, especially at such a venerable and reserved affair as the New York Film Festival, but the sparks flew last fall following the debut of Don Argott doc, “The Art of the Steal.” The film, which opens today, recalls the long and arduous fight for control of the Barnes Foundation – considered one of the most important art collections in the world. The battle pitted against each other opposing forces representing money and power with art and how and who should control master work and its display.
“We didn’t know much about [the Barnes Foundation], so we went down there, and the moment we walked in, it was breathtaking,” said “Steal” director Don Argott following the NYFF screening. Yet, the fact that the Philadelphia resident, along with others in his crew, had not seen or heard of the Barnes collection — though it is only housed several miles away in Lower Merion, PA — is exactly an argument for its relocation, a fight that has divided people in the greater Philadelphia area along political/cultural and even class lines.
In 1922, Dr. Albert C. Barnes created the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia. At the time, the city’s well connected and cultural elite scorned his massive collection of post-impressionist and early modern art. The establishment, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, labeled it at the time, “horrible” and “debased art,” so he permanently placed his art in a unique setting in his home in a tony suburb of the city. Barnes, who grew up working class and made money as an adult, grew a taste for the works of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Seurat, Magritte and others, assembling a remarkable collection that today has been estimated to be worth more than $25 billion (or priceless, according to some experts interviewed in the film).
But Barnes was not a favorite of his wealthy peers in the nearby city and he decided his collection should form the backbone of an educational foundation. He was ridiculed by the establishment as the artists’ work he owned grew in stature for not displaying it in traditional institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and when he died suddenly in 1951, he flipped the metaphorical bird one last time to the establishment by giving control of the foundation to Lincoln University, a small African-American college.
Still, the saga continued, and local power brokers including Walter Annenberg (whom Barnes detested) and the Pew Foundation sought control. With political connections and a convenient buy-off of Lincoln College to the tune of $40 million, the priceless collection is now under the control of Philadelphia’s elite whom Barnes hated so much. And the art is set for removal from its home in Lower Merion for a new gallery adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, despite the expressed desire of Barnes’ will.
During the vibrant Q&A in New York last fall some audience members asked aloud about the perceived lack of access to the work. Barnes set up the foundation to be primarily an educational institution with public viewing of the art receiving a secondary roll. In fact, Barnes expressly forbade the art from being displayed anywhere other than at the foundation.
“I don’t think it’s hard to get in,” said “Art of the Steal” producer Sheena M. Joyce. “I go there and usually we’re a minority of English speakers, so I don’t understand why people from across the Atlantic can find a way to get in, but people from 4.6 miles away can’t.”
While the film clearly appears to be on the side of Dr. Barnes’ original intent, the filmmakers said they made a significant attempt to include the new overseers of the Barnes Foundation, though without success. Yet they did gain access to PA Governor Rendell and other players that supports the foundation’s relocation. Even so, the filmmakers were still peppered with questions of bias.
“There’s been a lot said about ‘our opinion,'” said Argott. “Our focus was on the main character of the film, and that’s Dr. Barnes. And this was his intent.”
Some festival audience members asked about the relative inaccessibility of a collection so vast and important and some took exception to a few moments in the film that appeared to ridicule the commodification of art and its faceless integration with mass culture via blockbuster shows at marquee institutions worldwide.
“If you want to be spoon fed your art, then that’s fine,” said executive producer Lenny Feinberg. “But there’s something to be said about understanding and viewing art on a higher level.”