Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A battle royal in Philly's art world

Dr. Albert Barnes: better taste in art than in sportcoats.

The Art of the Steal is a documentary about the expression of some very unbrotherly love in the Philadelphia art world. The movie pits the Philly establishment against a renegade collector whose taste and fortune allowed him to amass more than 250 paintings from masters such as Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani.

During the course of his eccentric life Dr. Albert Barnes became the proud owner of one of the world's most magnificent collections of Post-Impressionist art. His collection – so valuable it's beyond pricing – has been housed at the Barnes Foundation, a building located outside Philadelphia. Barnes, who died in 1951, did not want the Barnes Foundation to become a museum. Instead, he operated a school, which he ran according to his own idiosyncratic principles.

The Art of the Steal does not celebrate the splendors of the art accumulated by Barnes, who also developed a drug used to treat venereal disease. Instead, the movie tells the story of one man who – even after his death – found himself at odds with the Philadelphia cultural establishment.

This long-running antagonism began during a time when Philly's elite had its nose so high in the air, it practically brushed against treetops. Born into a working-class family, Barnes regarded himself as a man of the people. He hated the Philadelphia Art Museum. When he died, he left the operation of the Barnes Foundation to a small black college, Lincoln University.

But the story didn't end there. A sustained effort on the part of Philadelphia's powers-that-be attempted to bring the Barnes collection under the city's control. After a variety of court battles, it was determined that art would be moved to a facility that's now under construction on spacious Benjamin Franklin Boulevard.

A variety of personalities break through a complicated legal story that's heavily weighted in favor of the Barnes proponents. The possibility that the other side might be serving the best interests of the art and the general public receives short shrift, and the title leaves little doubt about where director Don Argott stands.

A more balanced film would have required some of the key establishment players -- the head of the Pew Charitable Trust, for example -- to talk to Argott. Most of them didn't. I also would have appreciated knowing a little more about how the Barnes school ran. But such limited liabilities shouldn't keep you from seeing a well-crafted and informative documentary that sheds significant light on the less-than-beautiful ways in which the art world sometimes operates.

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