The Art of the Steal

A battle of wills over priceless art collection

Albert C. Barnes decreed in his will that his $6 billion art collection would never be moved. After years of legal battles, it’s now scheduled to relocate in 2012. Albert C. Barnes decreed in his will that his $6 billion art collection would never be moved. After years of legal battles, it’s now scheduled to relocate in 2012. (IFC Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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To whom does art belong — museums or the public they ostensibly serve? More interestingly: From whom should art be protected? “The Art of the Steal’’ is a fascinating, maddening documentary that addresses these issues with a mixture of clarity and agit-doc disingenuousness. The movie’s never less than entertaining, but you often feel like arguing with the screen, and not in a good way.

The subject is the Barnes Foundation, an educational art institution in the suburbs of Philadelphia that houses one of the greatest troves of paintings on the planet: 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses; Picassos and Monets and van Goghs, oh my. The Barnes holdings would be considered priceless if price weren’t very much the subtext of the current battle over where they belong. The paintings have been valued at over $6 billion. You’d better believe price matters.

Albert C. Barnes was an inventor who made his fortune with a drug used to treat gonorrhea; he subsequently collected Impressionist canvases the way other men collect tin soldiers or champagne corks. He was also something of a well-spoken crank who never forgave the elites of Philadelphia for snubbing a 1923 exhibition of his artworks.

The Barnes Foundation was thus pointedly created outside the city limits, its art accessible to the public only two days a week. Barnes took delight in keeping academics out and letting plumbers in, and when he died in 1951 his will laid out exactingly specific plans to keep the paintings out of the clutches of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Barnes’s longtime enemy, publisher-philanthropist Walter Annenberg.

“The Art of the Steal’’ is about how Albert Barnes’s will — in both senses of the word — was broken piece by piece over the years by many zealously interested parties. At this point, after the elites whom Barnes detested mounted an assault on the foundation’s board, the collection is slated to move in 2012 to a new facility in downtown Philadelphia, right next to the Museum of Art. Is this a cultural land grab or a way to better bring art to where people (especially wealthy tourists) can see it? It’s both and much more, even if the movie argues only one side of the equation.

Director Don Argott (“Rock School’’) paces “The Art of the Steal’’ like a good paranoid conspiracy thriller, and he makes the most out of the fact that several of the film’s key villains — the head of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the chair of the Barnes Foundation — refused to speak to him. Could it be they expected a hatchet job, given that Argott had been hired by the film’s producer, a Philadelphia businessman dead set against moving the Barnes? The director has made the passionate advocacy film he was asked to, but you think twice when one of the sobersided talking heads he interviews is later seen screaming invective at a pro-Barnes rally.

The fact is there are few heroes in this story — living ones, anyway. Everyone smells the power and money clinging to these paintings and they want some. The legal issue is simple: Barnes’s trust has been wrongfully dismantled, his wishes ignored. The cultural issue is more complex. Why couldn’t the funds to build a new Barnes have been used to renovate the old? What’s wrong with maintaining an Eden for art that requires a pilgrimage to the suburbs?

To play devil’s advocate, why not re-create that Eden where more people can get to it? (It works fine for Boston’s Gardner Museum.) Can’t the general public be served alongside the connoisseur? What “The Art of the Steal’’ neglects to examine is the elitism on all sides of this fight, the overweening cultural vanity that hides behind scraps of oil-covered canvas. Whatever the struggle to save the Barnes is about, it’s certainly not about the art.

Ty Burr can be reached at


Directed by: Don Argott

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 101 minutes

Unrated (as G: ruffled art-world feathers)

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