A little while ago Raul wrote about The Art of the Steal. I did indeed recommend it to Raul. I’m not sure I said it was a heist specifically but it did come out of a conversation about heist films. I too love a good heist movie and agree that half the fun is rooting for the what are technically the bad guys – the thieves. Raul Topkapi is super fun and I have been to the actual Topkapi in Istanbul which was pretty neat. Before I forget Raul – you should watch The Score with Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton.

I agree that The Art of the Steal is far from even-handed. It absolutely has an opinion and isn’t afraid to show it. But the story is so fascinating and hard to believe that it compels you to watch. The viewer really has no option but to agree to some degree as the opposing opinion is non-existent in the film.

I’d never heard of Albert Barnes or the Barnes Collection before seeing The Art of the Steal. He’s a character alright. You couldn’t write this guy’s story. The Art of the Steal idolizes him unabashedly and his truly unique vision for art and education. Portraying him as a maverick in every aspect of his life, the filmmakers also depict his shall we say prickly nature as colorful and almost charming.

So when I saw PBS would be showing its own documentary, The Barnes Collection as part of its PBS Arts series I was intrigued. It surely would not be as one-sided as The Art of the Steal. I was curious about how they would handle the controversial movement of the Barnes Collection from Merion, PA to the Phildelphia Museum of Art.

To recap the points both pieces agree on:
Albert Barnes grew up poor in Philadelphia, went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892, taught for two years and left academia to become a professional gambler. He then took those winnings to study at the University of Berlin where he met a partner to develop a solution to treat gonorrhea. This solution became a standard administration to newborn infants and Barnes became truly wealthy.

Soon after, Barnes began collecting what was then unknown modern art from Europe. He became a voracious collector and his taste later proved to be unparalleled and unquestionably visionary. His first showing of his burgeoning collection in Philadelphia in 1923 drew criticism of himself as a charlatan and the collection as degenerate. Far from deterring him, the criticism seemed to steel his resolve. Barnes continued to collect with his singular eye and present his collection as he envisioned. Rather than keep it as a private collection, Barnes wished to use the pieces for art education. His collection would encompass paintings, sculpture, metalwork and eventually include 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos with an estimated value of $25 billion.

After his death and seemingly iron-clad and explicit will to keep the collection intact and housed in Merion, PA, the collection was eventually acquired and moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the city’s center.

So then we arrive at the fork in the road. Raul does a fantastic job of writing about The Art of the Steal in his post. Basically, the filmmakers portray the movement of the Barnes Collection from Merion to Philadelphia as nothing short of a robbery. It’s colorful, dramatic and passionate. The Art of the Steal is the zealot, msnbc, Fox News.

Comparatively, the PBS Arts piece is a an inoffensive retelling. It works with the current Barnes Foundation. It has interviews with its current leadership, which agreed to the move, as well as the architects of the new space. They all speak articulately and knowledgeably about Barnes’ vision and philosophy. Someone mentions some financial trouble making the Merion location untenable and that a judge ruled that if the collection were presented in the same manner, it would be ok for the collection to be moved. I think it took me longer to write about those two sentences than the time the PBS piece devoted to the dispute to which The Art of the Steal devotes an entire film. The PBS piece is the harmless moderate, Entertainment Tonight, the Today Show.

One interesting differentiation, they have access to Barnes’ letters which are voiced by David Morse. Barnes’ own words are an insight into his past motivations and personal theories about art, education, philosophy and life in general.

There were some things I don’t remember mentioned in The Art of the Steal. But I also saw it a couple of years ago. Of note,

– Barnes reconnected with a childhood friend who became an artist. He gave him $25,000 to buy some good paintings in Europe. When he returned, Barnes kept 25 of the 33 paintings and from then on went to Europe himself to purchase. So his collection was really jump started by his friend.

– Barnes noticed his factory workers could complete their work in 6 hours a day. With the remaining time, Barnes decided should be educated and took it upon himself to do so in art appreciation. Barnes believed anyone could learn to understand and appreciate art, if presented in the right way. He believed art was not the dominion of the privileged and college-educated. This program was the proving ground for what would become the Barnes Foundation art education program in Merion.

– When his first showing at Philadelphia Fine Arts club was ill-received, it was his friend philosopher John Dewey who suggested Barnes use his collection and his “ensemble” style of displaying the pieces to educate.

– Barnes, later in life after the passing of his wife, was desperately lonely and found solace in his paintings as one would a dear friend. Barnes had a connection to these works that was deeply personal.

But aside from these insights, the PBS piece all but ignores the huge and protracted controversy of moving the collection out of Merion. It barely acknowledges that there was any dispute at all. There are interviews throughout with several current Barnes Foundation staff (in order of appearance):

– Katy Rawdon, Director of Archives, Librairies, and Special Collections
– Jennifer Nadler, Outreach Project Manager
– Blake D. Bradford, The Bernard C. Watson Director of Education
– Judith Dolkart, Deputy Director for Art and Archival Collections
– Martha Lucy, Associate Curator
– Derek Gillman, Executive Director and President

You’d think with all these Barnes Foundation people, between the lot of them they would be able to give a compelling argument for moving the collection. But they don’t. Or couldn’t. They barely acknowledge that it was a problem at all. I think they must have been just as passionate about moving the collection as those opposed. I was hoping since the opposition had their say in The Art of the Steal, here the supporters would have their day in the sun. Surely, the producers must be aware of The Art of the Steal.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this airing follows the opening of the new location, which opened May 26. It seems that instead of justifying the move and acknowledging the controversy, someone decided it would be better to be as inoffensive as possible and pretend that it didn’t happen and just make an hour long commercial instead.  It’s too bad. It would have been nice to let both sides get a voice but it looks like commercialism has won the day again.