Movie Review: “The Art of the Steal”

[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

I find myself in the awkward position of observing that museums often fail to offer an optimum venue for looking at art. Viewing art in museums is roughly akin to sleeping on a plank. It’s just not comfortable. Plus, I could articulate the obvious by observing their very nature creates an “inside” and “outside” dichotomy that insinuates a rarified realm for paintings that makes them inaccessible to many people. Even intrepid Americans wanting to see dazzling art are often prevented from doing so by virtue of daunting trips to downtown areas where parking must be purchased and the walls they assail seem more hallowed than inviting. There’s a stigma of snootiness that shrouds some museums that isn’t wholly unearned. And this serves as a point of departure for the story of Dr. Albert Barnes and the movie, “The Art of the Steal.”

Dr. Barnes grew up in a less-than-privileged background—in fact, he earned money to pay his way through medical school by boxing. But, ultimately, he shrewdly acquired enormous wealth by selling pharmaceuticals and became sufficiently rich to indulge his voracious appetite for art on a grand scale. He possessed an unerring aesthetic and began to purchase Picassos, Renoirs, Matisses, Cézannes and Rousseaus — but only if they were of the highest caliber. He chose to house them in a mansion far from the elite crowd of Philadelphia dealmakers he grew to loathe. Instead of creating a shrine, Barnes curated a warm environment with sun-colored walls that housed eye-popping art alongside artifacts and furniture. Moreover, rather than indulge dilettantes, he wished his painstakingly acquired stash to remain accessible as a school for those who truly wished to see his collection. The glimpses shown in the movie of his remarkable collection in situ are enough to make one book a trip to Philadelphia to see the goods in person. And, alas, one should do so soon. Despite the finest attorneys and the formidable force of Barnes’s rough-and-tumble character, the collection has been, well, heisted.

For years billionaires and city officials in Philadelphia have yearned to acquire the Barnes Collection—and they’ve finally gotten their way. Barnes could not have more clearly delineated his wish that his stellar collection, estimated to carry a jaw-dropping 25-billion-dollar price tag, remain housed in the mansion in which he carefully placed his pieces. Rather than give in to the pressure of magnate Walter Annenberg and a bevy of other “charitable” organizations, Barnes thumbed his nose at the “cultural elite” and gave the entire collection to a college dedicated to serving an African American student body.

Well, it’s interesting to see what transpires when enough money and stunningly brilliant art baubles are at stake. No stone is left unturned and no attorney is left under-utilized when it comes to deconstructing a legacy that seemed invincible. Because Barnes had no heirs, the ability to enact his wishes in perpetuity was compromised. Fissures appeared in contracts and an array of Philadelphia officials and contemporary robber barons managed the seemingly impossible — they effectively “stole” the Barnes Collection.  

It is now scheduled to become a primary tourist attraction in downtown Philadelphia, circa 2012. Disneyland meets the Impressionists and the result is hugely, majestically, hopelessly tragic. ”The Art of the Steal” is worth seeing just for the occasional glance at the masterpieces Barnes acquired. But, even more, it shows in vivid detail how deals are made and broken and, unfortunately, it also shows how the ultra rich really are different. Obviously, this is painting, as it were, a demographic group with a brush far too broad. But, in this case, the stereotypes hold true. And we, once again, are left wailing and wishing to scale formidable walls to do what humans sometimes long to do —imbibe the stunning beauty that only the world’s finest art can invoke.

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