The Hot Doc — The Art of the Steal

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The Joy of Life, Henri Matisse, 1905-1906/The Barnes Foundation

The Joy of Life, Henri Matisse, 1905-1906/The Barnes Foundation

The surprise hit of the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago was The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the still-in-progress hijacking of the phenomenal Barnes Foundation art collection, one of the greatest in the world, by the powers-that-be in Philadelphia. The film has its New York debut Tuesday night at a sold out performance at the New York Film Festival. After seeing it several times I can highly recommend it, with a few caveats.

If you’ve followed the saga of the Barnes, the outlines of the story that director Don Argott tells are familiar. But to see them filled in on screen gives you a pretty captivating picture of municipal chicanery, institutional strong-arm tactics and bad faith. And if you haven’t followed the whole dismal affair, you’re in for a grimly fascinating hour and 40 minutes. Just don’t go expecting a happy ending.

The Barnes story is lengthy and knotty, and there’s a lot to say about him, his collection and this film, so I’ll divide this post into several parts.

At the heart of the matter is the superabundant art collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a treasury of works by Renoir (181 of them), Cezanne (69), Van Gogh (7), Seurat (6), Picasso (46) and Matisse (59), to name just a few, all of it tucked away in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion in a Paul Cret-designed villa Barnes built for it in 1924. The collection contains some of the key works of early Modernism, including Cezanne’s Nudes in a Landscape and The Card Players, Seurat’s Models and Matisse’s The Joy of Life, jewel in the crown of his fauve period.

For much of his life, the irascible Barnes was fiercely at odds with the power elite of Philadelphia, mostly over the collection, which they detested at first as too modern, then lusted after as their own tastes evolved enough to recognize its value. Right now, after decades of struggle, it’s set to be moved from Merion to a new museum being built not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That transition would have horrified the old doctor, who made clear in repeated public statements and legal documents that his pictures must never be leant, sold or moved. Over his lifetime and beyond, Barnes put restrictions on his collection. He made it hard to visit, hard to write about, hard to reproduce in any way. But his cranky regulations, some of which have been set aside over the years, preserved a unique visitor experience, one that’s open to anybody who takes the trouble to travel the short distance from downtown Philadelphia to the superb quiet of the house and grounds where his collection is exhibited. The move, engineered mostly for reasons of tourist dollars, is a huge mistake.

Barnes, who was 78 when he died in a car accident in 1951, was a quintessential American character — ornery, self-made, brimming with majestic grievances, a boxer in his youth who used the courts of law as his ring for the rest of his life. Cross him and you got sued. The irony of course is that after his death his most prized possession, his art collection, dissolved in a welter of lawsuits. He spent much of his life shaking his fist at the world. So did Kong Kong and you know what happened to him.

This is the story that The Art of the Steal has to tell. The film making is straightforward — a lot of talking heads and film clips, some vintage, including unusual 16mm color footage of Barnes himself, with a lot of Philip Glass on the soundtrack to give it all the right note of mournful gravitas. Argott has rounded up some of the major players, including former Barnes trustees, students and faculty, former Foundation advisers like the art dealer Richard Feigen. He spoke with the LA Times art critic Christopher Knight, who a few years ago exposed a secret deal related to the dismantling of the Barnes. He also got to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia for most of the 1990s and who drops a bit of a bombshell — more on that later. Much of the film’s narrative tracks closely with the 2004 book Art Held Hostage, the indispensable account of the Barnes debacle up to that year by John Anderson, who appears frequently in the film as another of those talking heads.

Barnes was the son of a Philadelphia butcher-turned-letter-carrier who grew up in a slum but went on to become a physician and chemist. In the early 1900s he abruptly made a fortune promoting Argyrol, a medication placed in the eyes of newborns to protect them from gonorrheal infections. The American Ashcan School painter William Glackens was a boyhood friend, and in 1912, when the money was rolling in, Barnes sent Glackens to Europe with $20,000 to buy pictures. Glackens’ taste was advanced for the time, and he came back not only with a Renoir and a Van Gogh, but a Cezanne and a Picasso. Soon after, Barnes traveled to Paris and met Gertrude Stein, the great cheerleader for modernism, whose art-critic brother Leo would become another of his mentors.

In 1922 Barnes established the Barnes Foundation to hold and oversee his collection. He provided an initial endowment of $6 million. Barnes already prickly relationship with Philadelphia’s high society took a serious turn for the worse a few months later, when he mounted an exhibition of work from his collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which the local art critics loudly detested. Barnes could give as good as he got. As the film reminds us, a typical public statement from him was: “Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum”. So was: “The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution.” It’s nothing of the sort, but never mind. Barnes gave no quarter.

For good measure he also soon came to hate Fiske Kimball, the ultra-snobbish director of the Philadelphia museum. Barnes entered into a decades-long antagonism with Kimbell that intensified his determination that the museum would never get its hands on his work. He had reason to fear that because he witnessed the fate of the collection of his friend and lawyer John G. Johnson, who assembled a private museum in his Philadelphia townhouse. After Johnson’s death in 1917 the Philadelphia museum successfully petitioned a court to have his house torn down and his collection transferred to the museum, where it remains today. As much as anything, that event hardened Barnes’ determination to protect his collection with his own legally iron-clad foundation.

In the 1930s Barnes, a ferocious New Deal Democrat, also embarked on a lifelong feud with the much younger Walter Annenberg, arch-Republican owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Eventually Annenberg would become Richard Nixon’s ambassador to Great Britain and a significant collector in his own right. Decades later, both the Philadelphia museum and the Annenberg Foundation would have a role in the final days of the Barnes saga.

More on that in upcoming posts.