The Art of the Steal, Part 2

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Okay, back to Don Argott’s new documentary, The Art of the Steal, which has its New York premiere Tuesday night at the New York Film festival.

By the 1920s Barnes was spending much of his time writing about art. His theories, with their almost exclusive focus on formal relations within and among pictures, weren’t taken very seriously then and still aren’t, but they continue to determine how and where the art at the Barnes is hung. He had also come to think of himself as an educator. Eventually there would be an art school on the grounds of the Barnes — a number of former students and teachers appear in Argott’s film to take us through the story. Though outsiders could visit the Barnes by appointment, Barnes regarded his collection as a teaching resource for the school, not a public gallery. And that was that. He ran the place with an iron fist and generally refused access even to scholars and critics wishing to study the paintings. Even Kenneth Clark was once turned away.

Barnes was an early supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, and in 1946 he befriended Horace Bond, president of Lincoln University, a school in rural Pennsylvania that was the oldest African-American college in the U.S., alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Bond’s son, the civil rights activist and former NAACP head Julian Bond, later became a Barnes trustee and is another talking head in The Art of the Steal, where he appears as one of the most somber critics of the move. But even the elder Bond was surprised when in 1950 Barnes abruptly arranged to grant control of his foundation to Lincoln, allowing the school’s trustees to nominate members of the foundation’s five-member board — something the school didn’t discover until after Barnes’ death the following year.

But it was quite a few years before Lincoln got to exercise that power, because a majority of the board members who were in place when Barnes died — all the of them hand picked by him — survived into the 1980s. Until then the Barnes was largely under the control of one of them, the estimable Violette de Mazia, the foundation’s director of education and very probably Barnes’ mistress. She would continue to run the place along the lines he set down. (Lincoln did get to nominate a trustee in 1967, but not again for more than two decades.)

All the same, there were two important changes during the de Mazia years. One came as the result of a lawsuit brought soon after Barnes’ death by his great antagonist, Walter Annenberg, who succeeded in forcing the Barnes to open to the public a few days a week by reservation — which is essentially the arrangement that’s still in place today.

The other developed gradually — the slow motion erosion of the foundation’s endowment, largely as a result of Barnes’ own shortsightedness. Because he had lived through a series of financial panics and stock market crashes, he deeply distrusted the market. He insisted that the endowment be invested entirely in safe but low-yield government bonds. What that guaranteed is that even before the double-digit inflation of the 1970s, the endowment was limping along. In some years the trustees had been invading the principal to pay the bills. By 1991 it would amount to no more than about $9 million, not that much more than the $6 million Barnes had originally kicked in 1922.

De Mazia died in 1988. The next year two other longtime trustees resigned. The stage was set for Lincoln University, which by now was also floundering financially, to exert its influence by putting its own people on the board, and the final rocky chapters of the Barnes would begin.

I’ll cover that in the next post.