Mr. Lousy recommended that I see this, if memory serves me, while we waxed warmly over one of our common favorite genres: the heist film. The more elaborate the better, I always felt. Some of them leave me spellbound – Jules Dassin’s glamourous, humorous, gorgeous Topkapi with Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov; and Spike Lee’s grey, claustrophobic puzzle Inside Man. Others leave me cold: I’ve wondered what is wrong with me that I can’t even sit through Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen. It had multiple split screens, and I still wasn’t engaged! Other heist films I’m simply satisfied with, like Stephen Soderbergh’s Oceans 11, which I liked well enough, but apparently not enough to move me to see the two sequels or the original Rat Pack version.
What special appeal does the heist hold for me?
Inventory: A mix of rogues and sophisticates collaborating on a big steal with intricate plotting that always goes awry at some point. Nabbing something – for me the preference is jewels (see Topkapi and Inside Man) – from somebody who doesn’t really need or entirely deserve it. I get a chance to root for criminals without feeling guilty, and I get a complot within the plot to keep me wondering how it will be derailed and how it might be re-railed.
But what about museum heists? Topkapi was a museum heist, after all. How do I feel about stealing from a museum? And what makes a museum a museum?
SPOILER ALERT from this point forward.
Which brings me to The Art of the Steal, which is a museum heist movie, in a sense: It’s a documentary detailing how a visionary art collector’s estate – a collection worth double-digit billions stipulated explicitly in his will to be housed in a Philadelphia suburb and to be used primarily for education and secondarily for public viewing – was systematically over a period of decades wedged from the foundation and its institutional custodian – to be made part of a public museum.
Sound boring? It’s not! In fact, I put it down as far more exciting than The Thomas Crown Affair.
Albert C. Barnes was an American success story: a working-class kid from Philly who made good on his education, became a medical doctor and chemist, patented a drug for gonorrhea, built his fortune on it, and subsequently went on an art buying spree, collecting works by artists like Matisse and Cézanne well before they were welcomed into American cultural establishments.
His tastes suggest he was a visionary. His temper suggests he was irascible and non-conformist to the core. When he staged a display of his collection, it was disparaged as ugly by the Philadelphia press and local art establishment.
So Barnes said, essentially, and quite possibly literally, “Fuck all of you. I’ve got the best collection. If you don’t like it, your loss. I’ll do with it what I want.”
What he wanted was to create a non-museum space where students of art could be fully immersed in masterpieces arranged very non-museumly™ in a suburban mansion.
The pieces, ranging from 181 Renoir paintings to African masks, are not arranged by period or genre; Barnes instead created a free-flowing environment of various modes that he meant to lend itself to a greater connection between everyday life and great art.
And he really fucking hated the rigid, socially enclosed arts establishment of Philadelphia. Once Matisse and Cézanne – and Picasso and others – won international acclaim, museums went to Barnes begging for loans, all of which were denied, often in letters that contained obscenities and sexual insults. The vituperative correspondences were usually signed by his dog.
So, for the record, I love Albert C. Barnes.
He knew that high society was chomping at the bit to get their hands on his collection, so he had what was meant as an iron-clad will drafted to stipulate that the Barnes Foundation would continue the mission that he had established: to keep the works in the same building for the purposes of education first and public viewing second.
The Art of the Steal recounts how his will met gradual but very purposeful manipulations until the collection ultimately landed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Barnes despised and disparaged as the very worst in artistic society: exclusive, high-society, low-imagination.
The Art of the Steal is not an even-handed documentary. Its funding came from a Barnes disciple, Lenny Feinberg, and though director John Argott claims to have entered the project with no bias and little knowledge about the Barnes Foundation, he’s working from an angle that can’t be mistaken. This is a painstaking picture of how high art establishments, big money, political clout-bearers, socially prominent patrons, and mega-charities form a coalition to launch a non-corporate corporate takeover.
I do wish that the other side had consented to being interviewed, but once they found out the title of the documentary and who was funding it, I imagine they thought participation would only make matters worse.
Instead, we get very impassioned accounts from a number of students from the Barnes Foundation, who consider this a genuine heist, one intricately plotted with several parties colluding to dismantle the institution and sever its mission in order to create a cash-generating tourist attraction for Philadelphia, in addition to fulfilling the pride of commanding the coup – billions of dollars of artwork lifted for $250 million or so.
The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg Foundation come out of this the worst. How much is muckraking? I am not sure. Since neither organization deigned to comment, neither looks good. I am so used to hearing their names tacked on as sponsors when I listen to NPR, I am surprised that I don’t give more thought to giant charitable foundations and the strings that might be attached to their giving – or to the motivations for doing so. There is a strong stench of putrid prestige that the filmmakers suggest lies at the core of these huge charities, who, in their maneuvering, appear more as cutthroat corporations than benevolent societies.
But what purpose was Barnes’ collection serving in its suburban setting? Public interaction was limited, and in the film we learned precious little about the education of the Barnes acolytes, other than a number of them became staunch defenders of Barnes’ intent to keep the works where they were and how they were. Barnes was a devotee of John Dewey’s approach to education, but I don’t see how that played out in the mission of the foundation.
Not only are Barnes’ followers art defenders; they are also art snobs, non-elitist elitists who complain about so-and-so’s complete lack of understanding of or terrible taste in art. The little guy in this David vs. Goliath story is not always so admirable. Was the art that they hogged up in the suburban mansion especially for them? Do they think everybody else is Archie Bunker staring at Matisse like it’s a Beetle Bailey comic?
Was there a crime committed in breaking the trust and schlepping the collection to a formal museum?
By some legal measure, yes, though as Lee Rosenbaum points out, the case might be more complex than the film lays out. I’m not sure it was really in the public interest, but Barnes’ will was not open to interpretation. Moreover, there is a solid case that plenty of money was around to keep the foundation afloat – the glitch is that said money was dominated by political and cultural elitists who wanted to see the collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Did the public ($107 million in public funds appeared with no explanation) and the charities pay a fair price for what one dealer could not even calculate the worth of?
Was it fair? No. Was there dirty dealing? Yes. What political ramifications does it have? I don’t know. It might set a precedent that heirless estates could find troublesome or even ruinous.
And how to view this through a political spectrum? I’ve tried it through Libertarian, traditional Democratic, traditional Republican, and Socialist perspectives, and it feels like a toss-up on all four counts! I feel that a Libertarian would object to the meddling in a private will and trust, but what if the trust is bust? (And that is open to dispute.) A Democrat might applaud the public sharing of a private collection, but even to the detriment of a legal document specifying otherwise? A Republican might argue that the foundation did not have the capital to sustain itself and the other foundations did, even though the actual market value of the collection is said to lie somewhere between $25 billion and incalculable. A Socialist would probably be delighted to see public access to the collection, though seeing it costs a family of four $56, far from free, and far from the intent of Barnes – to make the arts accessible to the working classes through not just exposure but education.
I think a broader political perspective could have been presented; however, the director does showcase two of the most dynamic participants in the film’s interviewees: prominent African American men who I would not have otherwise associated with a protracted legal battle over the placement of a collection of artwork dominated by French masters. More interesting, they stand on opposite sides of the issue and speak out quite directly and riskily, considering they probably hold the highest status of anyone who agreed to speak for the director.
One is Richard H. Glanton, an attorney with political aspirations who led the Barnes Foundation out of suburban Merion, PA and into the world of touring exhibits and introduced the idea of selling off pieces to raise funds. In the end, he was forced out, and while he did indeed bring in money, he also rang up a sizable chunk of legal fees in challenging the foundation’s mission and then in challenging the neighborhood. He deserves some credit for stepping in front of the camera when no one else from the opposing side would. He is completely unapologetic about not knowing art – but knowing how to lead an organization.
Another leader of another organization, the NAACP, Julian Bond, takes an entirely different stance. His father had served as the first African American President of Lincoln University, the traditional Black college that Barnes had handed his conservatorship to upon his death in a car accident in 1951.Wow – I had purposefully left out the Black college holding the endowment by way of Barnes’ will – a stupendously executed post-mortem fuck-you to Philadelphia’s high society; and I left out the car accident on purpose as well.In the course of the film, the former actually serves up more surprise, suspense, and twists than the latter, which took place when Barnes was 78 years old. But back to Bond – he does go on record stating that the Barnes relocation was theft and that as the then-leader of the NAACP, he was going out on a limb in stating this, especially considering how the organization he led was a beneficiary of the foundations he was accusing of collaboration in what he considered an illegal act. Zam! Also, if I were Julian Bond, I would agree to go on camera all the time; he is far and away the most photogenic of the participants and clearly knows how to state his case without any runaround.
Glanton and Bond were far and away the best interview segments that the film offers! They weren’t exactly the rogues and sophisticates from my favorite heist films, but they really held their camera time like movie stars, Glanton by force of personality and Bond by line delivery and camera savviness.
Now to Mr. Lousy, who recommended this film to Raúl in the first place, and not, as he expected, for him to watch glamourous ladies in low-cut gowns distract fatcats smoking cigars at roulette tables while cat burglars crawl through heating ducts and lower themselves by rope into museum exhibitions of the precious gems of an Austrian count. That didn’t happen here.
I think Lousy wants us to think about what a piece of art is for:
Public consumption? Appreciating and learning from fine works, or staring at paintings of fat ladies to check off a tourist attraction?
Private consumption? Gazing for hours into the beauty of a masterpiece, or bathing in the status of having it hanging in the conservatory?
The Art of the Steal may raise more questions about the best destination of esteemed pieces of art than it can actually field, and to me, this is really the center of the film that we never reach.
One thing we can be sure of: Albert Barnes would have written one motherfucking mad letter about his collection being dismantled and then reassembled in a bizarre recreation of his own building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a staging that a New York Times writer found an improvement, but an L.A. Times columnist found to be a pale imitation of the original setting.
So, The Art of the Steal, the steal of the art. Was it outright theft? Legal appropriation? Sly misappropriation? I still haven’t decided.
The strongest point that The Art of the Steal makes is that Albert C. Barnes was a powerhouse personality who had a passion for art that inspired an impassioned defense of his vision from students in his foundation nearly six decades after his death. So there is power in art. Maybe this documentary could have focused on its transmission.
Was I happy with the outcome of the case that concluded the film and forced the move?
No. It did feel like a heist, but I couldn’t bring myself to root for the thieves this time. At heart, I was rooting for Barnes.