It’s about the steal, not about the art

Director defends the collector and his museum rules

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 14, 2010

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“The Art of the Steal: The Untold Story of the Barnes Foundation’’ is the latest in a long line of recent documentaries that are not only partisan but also proud to be so. The film is scathing about imminent plans to move the extraordinary collection of the Barnes Foundation (it includes 189 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos, and has an estimated value of $25 billion) from its present home, in Merion, Pa., to a new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia, about five miles away by car.

Are these plans, as one commentator in the film has it, “the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II’’? Or is the Barnes’s messy predicament something . . . well, messier? The film, currently playing at the Kendall Square, uses a montage of talking heads, almost all of whom share director Don Argott’s take on the issue, to tell the story of the Barnes’s contentious history, culminating in the recent decision — after years of money troubles, squabbles with neighbors, dismal leadership, and endless court cases — to up sticks and move to a new site a short stroll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s an engrossing and deftly made film, but it has attracted criticism for being too one-sided. The Globe spoke with Argott recently when he came to Boston.

Q. Did you have an idea from early on that you’d get so much interest in this film?

A. When you make an independent film you just never know how audiences are going to respond to it. You live with it for so long. You rip it apart and then you put it back together, and then you rip it apart again. It’s such an intense process. Then to have people respond to it in a favorable way, you think, Hey, I guess it’s pretty good.

Q. Realistically, for a film about an issue like this to get a wide audience, does it have to be polemical?

A. I’m not sure it needs to be polemical. It just needs to be compelling, and to be bigger than just a local story. I think that we recognized from early on that this was much bigger than a story about local politics and neighbors.

Q. If it’s true that more people are going to see this art in the new location, what’s wrong with that?

A. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it other than that you’re being robbed of a more interesting, intimate experience at the current location. Is it fair to say that cultural and historically relevant places wear their welcome out at a certain point in time, and have to be re-imagined as something else? You know, here in Boston I know there’s been outrage about just moving a few things around at the Gardner Museum. Part of what makes these places special is what they are: a link to a time that’s gone by. Particularly in Philadelphia and Boston, where there’s so much rich history, why are we destroying something to turn it into something else for the benefit of tourists?

Q. Do you think that if Albert Barnes had been more sympathetic it might have been easier for his vision to stay in place?

A. No question. What’s pretty amazing about the story is that he sets himself up as the outsider, the curmudgeonly outcast, who doesn’t want to play ball with the other rich folks in town. And those bad relations he forged with very powerful people like the Annenbergs came back to haunt him in a big way. So you have to ask yourself, what if Barnes and Walter Annenberg were pals? What would that have meant? It does come down to this underlying assumption of, well, he was a bastard, therefore it’s OK that this is happening to him. But that’s a dangerous argument. It’s really messed up, if you think about it.

Q. What would you say to someone who argued that he was too controlling about the conditions in which his collection can be seen, and who sees it?

A. Put yourself in that position. What if you felt really strongly about something that you had control over, and you had really strict reasons about why you wanted it to be that way. Would it be OK for someone to go against what you felt was important? I think not enough people put themselves in that position because it’s easier to reconcile when it’s someone you don’t agree with. You say, well, I don’t think he was a nice guy, I think the way he arranged the paintings is crazy, it’s hard to get in to, and so on. I don’t hear any people complaining about the Statue of Liberty because it’s hard to get in to and you have to take a ferry and it’s not open all the time. Maybe the argument should be, well, why don’t we put it in Times Square because then everybody can have access and see it and go there whenever they want. . . . Is that what we’re coming to in this culture?

Q. A lot of great collectors talk about themselves as mere custodians of the work they collect. Should the fact that someone has deep enough pockets to buy a lot of great art give him an absolute right to control the circumstances in which the work is seen, even after he is dead?

A. Well, if you believe in wills and things like that, then yes. If you don’t, then I guess not. I mean, what’s the point of writing a will if it’s not going to be carried out? A lot of the criticisms of the film come down to this issue of entitlement — you know, I need to be able to see this and you’re not making it easy for me to see it. To me it’s not a valid argument. I feel we’re trying to destroy a really important cultural institution in the name of tourism so that we can make more money on the back of it. But if we start doing it here, where does it end?

Q. OK. But another question you could ask is, What’s more important? Barnes’s vision or, say, Matisse’s vision? You used Matisse’s statement that the Barnes was “the only sane place to look at art in America’’ prominently in the film. But Matisse ended up having a very rough time at the hands of Barnes. He desperately wanted people to see his work in the Barnes at a time when his reputation was riding on it. But Barnes made it completely impossible, and Matisse was gutted. So, again, whose vision matters more?

A. It’s a great question. It depends who you want to argue for, Barnes or Matisse. But Barnes commissioned “The Dance.’’ Matisse didn’t have to do it. It’s a slippery slope if you start siding with the artist at every turn and asking how the art is being best served. My argument always goes back to what Barnes said when he died. If he’d said, as soon as I die, put some bricks in front of the door and don’t let anybody ever enter it again, then I’d say there’s a valid argument. But this is a place that people can see, and they can see it when they want to see it. Maybe they can’t walk up to the door after they’re done at McDonald’s, maybe it takes a little effort — you have to make a reservation and all these things — but it’s open four days a week and potentially five, six, seven days a week. I do understand that you have to do things in the name of progress. But to me progress is about how you preserve it, and that might mean keeping it open more days a week, or maybe allowing walk-ups. Whatever it is, explore those options, see how that goes. But to go from, we can’t make it work here to, l et’s totally dismantle it and bring it down to the parkway and spend all these hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to build a new building — that’s a pretty big leap.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at