Susan Granger’s review of “The Art of the Steal” (IFC Films)
To whom does art belong? Two quotes stick in my mind after seeing Don Argott’s fervent, fact-packed documentary about the decades-long tug-of-war over control of the Barnes Foundation, a private collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern art worth more than $25 billion.
First, when Henri Matisse came from Paris in 1933 to paint a 42-foot mural called “La Dance” above the Barnes’s tall French windows, he called it “the only sane place to see art in America.” After strong-willed, rags-to-riches iconoclast, Albert C. Barnes invented a medicine used to treat gonorrhea, he spent his fortune on art and specified in 1922 that his 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne and 59 by Matisse, along with Picassos, Monets, Seurats and Van Goghs, be displayed in a unique, intimate setting in an arboretum, accessible to the public only two days a week, in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb.
After Barnes died in 1951 at age 79, having been hit by a trailer truck as he drove his car, reportedly at 110 mph. through a STOP sign, a powerful group of moneyed interests decided to relocate the Barnes Foundation to attract more tourists into downtown Philadelphia. With prominent politicians from Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and some of the country’s most powerful philanthropists determined to make the move in 2012, a group called Friends of the Barnes has gone to court to stop them. Which leads to the second quote – this from an art expert: “If you’re going to leave your paintings somewhere, don’t let there be a politician within 500 yards.”
While Don Argott (“Rock School”) characterizes the chicanery as “the greatest act of artistic vandalism since World War II,” he presents only one side of the elite equation since he was hired by producer Lenny Feinberg, a former Foundation student who is firmly against moving the Barnes. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Art of the Steal” is a controversial, suspenseful 7, evolving like a crime thriller as a collector’s legally documented wishes are corrupted by the vulgarity of commerce.