The Art of the Steal – Review

Now this is what a documentary should be!  After my disappointment with Restrepo a couple weeks ago, I was thrilled to realize, after popping in this DVD, that The Art of the Steal was reminding me why I love documentary films in the first place.  It takes an important but relatively obscure conflict, lays out the history and the current state of affairs interspersed with personal opinions from some of the players involved (and makes those who declined to be interviewed look even worse), and it leaves you in suspense about the outcome to the very end…and possibly beyond, as nothing irreversible has been done yet.

So what’s it about?  Well, basically how the city bureaucrats and social elites in Philadelphia bullied and swindled their way into getting control of the 25 billion dollars worth of art that comprises the Barnes Foundation collection.  The foundation that controls the collection has agreed to move it from its current home outside Philadelphia (in lower Merion, about four miles away) to a shiny new museum hall in the city proper…against the specific will and testament of the man who had owned the paintings and left them to the Foundation, and against the legal objections raised by several different parties.

This is an apolitical film, for all that it is anti-political.  What I mean by this is, all of the politicians come out looking bad.  The quip that if art is involved, “there better not be a politician within 500 yards” is expressed directly twice in the film, and it is certainly the theme of the film.  Ironically it’s not just politicians who come out looking dirty, corrupt, and greedy, but also several so-called non-profits on the art scene who had a hand in getting their people onto the Foundation’s board in order to control it–and its future profits.  “It’s like a hostile corporate takeover, except for a non-profit organization stewarding a collection of art.”  Indeed.

The film is really well edited–it shows you just enough of each topic to keep you fascinated and then gives a tantalizing hint at what else is going on to keep you engaged when the exposition shifts to a different part of the situation.  It’s a really wonderful piece of mosaic storytelling that ultimately comes together in a satisfying way.  Narratively speaking–I doubt too many people who see this movie will be satisfied with the outcome of the story itself!  Because if you believe in private property, then you should be outraged by this blatant disregard for the intent and execution of an individual’s will.  And if you value art, not for the sense of cultural sophistication but for the existential aesthetic experience, then you should be sickened by this proposed move—there is no way that any new museum-like museum, no matter how expensive or carefully “designed,” could possibly equal the intimate experience of a small gallery on a bucolic estate that was landscaped and also architecturally created to put you in the right frame of mind to view the collection.

The most unfortunate part of the whole situation is that the collection of mostly French Impressionist and post-Impressionist art is amazing enough that most people—even those who know and condemn the move—will still go see it, anyway.  I am not one of them.  Maybe it’s biting my nose off to spite my face, but I believe in certain principles.  I believe in private property, that politicians and non-profit organizations should not be able to circumvent a will because it is expedient for them, and I believe in the aesthetic principles driving the collection’s current presentation.  Thus if I can’t get to this collection in its original location before it moves, assuming the move goes forward, then I will never see it.  Because I will not see it in Philadelphia, not after watching what those people stomped on to have their way.

It’s a great documentary, and a scathing indictment on the established politics and Society in that city (and in general, since that is easy to extrapolate), and a touching history of an amazing collection of art.  If you have an interest in any of those things, then you need to watch this film.


  1. Elena,

    I grew up just around the corner from the Barnes Foundation, and visited it many times in my youth. I later (coincidentally) ended up buying a house and starting a family in Philadelphia where I can now walk to the new proposed location for the Barnes in under 10 minutes.

    I feel this documentary was very misinformative.

    First, Albert Barnes was very honorable man. He dedicated his life to exposing & educating the underprivileged about art. However – like all of us – he was only human. He had a personal vendetta against the art society of Philadelphia at the time, feeling as though they snubbed him because of his blue collar upbringing and his very eccentric views of art.

    His will (among other things) stated a few interesting points that were not covered much in this film. First, he stipulated that the museum would only be open 2 days a week. Second, the art was never to leave the premises on loan or otherwise. Times have changed since his death over 50 years ago. First, both those wishes expressed in Barnes will have been violated. It’s no longer free either.

    If you where to visit Lower Merion today… you would see that it is an OBSCENELY wealthy area just outside of the city limits. The opulence on one side of the city line is an embarrassing contrast to the disparity on the other. When Philadelphia institute a city wage tax in the 60’s (for the common good) many of its more wealthy residents moved just outside of the city to escape having to yield any of their good fortune to those less fortunate.

    I don’t believe wealthy people have the right to “take it with them”. Nor do I believe that if Albert Barnes were alive today he would disagree to the concept of making his collection more accessible.

    Here is an extreme example: Before he died, lets say that Albert Barnes decided to burn his collection in a giant heap in his yard to spite the art world. Would he have the right to? Sure. Would it be the right thing to do? of course not.

  2. Hi Tim,

    There is no doubt that this was a slanted documentary. However, the film was quite explicit about the points of his will that had been violated which you mention. There was a whole section that focused on which Board director made the decision to open it 5 days a week and send the collection on tour. Those violations of the will’s stipulations were a prelude to the rest of it…but that doesn’t make the rest of it right. And while we won’t ever know what Barnes would have thought about our changed world and making his collection more accessible to the Everyman’s, I don’t think he’d have been pleased by the underhanded political wrangling that made that happen.

    thanks for the comments!

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