The Art of the Steal — The Beginning of the End

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Okay, yet one more look at Don Argott’s new documentary, The Art of the Steal — which will go into commercial release next spring — and how the Barnes mess is wrapping up.

By the end of the tumultuous era of Barnes president Richard Glanton, with its big multi-city tour of Barnes paintings — money in! — and its big costly lawsuits — whoops, money out — the Barnes was ripe for the picking. The time was right to realize the longstanding ambition by various people and institutions in Philadelphia — you could say generations of them — to pry the Barnes out of Merion and bring it to downtown Philadelphia.

In its final stretch Argott’s film has a couple of fascinating interviews, one with former Pennsylvania Attorney General D. Michael Fisher, the other with Gov. Ed Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2000. For one thing, Rendell lets drop that at a party on the grounds of the Barnes in the mid-1990s he was approached by Ray Perelman, then Chairman of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, asking him to help capture the Barnes for Philadelphia. “The art museum wanted obviously to run it,” says Rendell. If nothing else, it confirms the obvious — that the powers-that-be in Philadelphia were looking for ways to get at the collection that Barnes had worked so hard to keep out of their grasp.

Rendell’s story makes you wonder about a claim made by Glanton earlier in the film that he, too, had been approached twice about “turning the Barnes over to the Philadelphia Museum”, though Glanton doesn’t say on camera who made the alleged approach.

To move the Barnes would require the assent of its board, which from the time Glanton arrived in the early ’90s had been weighted with appointees chosen by Lincoln University, the school to which Barnes had given control over his foundation before his death. By the ’90s Lincoln was a state-affiliated school that was strapped for cash and susceptible to political pressures and financial incentives.

After Glanton’s departure, the new chairman of the Barnes would be Bernard Watson, whose ample resumé included his title as chairman of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, which as overseer of the Philadelphia Convention Center has an obvious stake in bringing tourist attractions to Philadelphia. It was under Watson that the Barnes decided in 2002 to go to court to seek permission to move the collection to Philadelphia. With that, the Philadelphia elites fell in line to offer money to accomplish the move.

The heavies in this part of the film are three non-profit charitable groups that led the “rescue” effort, but only in ways meant to ensure the Barnes was relocated. One is the Lenfest Foundation, headed by cable TV mogul H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent philanthropists — he and his wife have pledged to give away most of their sizable fortune during their lifetime — but a man who is also chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another is the Annenberg Foundation, the legacy of Barnes’ longtime antagonist Walter Annenberg. The third is the Pew Charitable Trusts and its CEO Rebecca Rimel.

Following a line of argument that’s been made by a number of people as the Barnes mess unraveled, Argott’s film builds a case that the Pew, which was in the midst of transforming itself from a private foundation to a public charity, needed the Barnes project to prove its ability to raise money. In testimony as part of the multitude of legal proceedings that surrounded the move, Rimel dismissed the idea. But at the very least, as the film shows, the Pew highlighted its efforts with the Barnes when it made its application to the IRS to change its status.

And plainly, no one was making much effort to find a revenue stream to keep the Barnes where it is.

In my next post — the final chapter.

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