Albert C. Barnes was a self-made man with a self-made fortune, earned in the early 20th Century from pharmaceuticals that made it easier to prevent the spread of venereal disease. With his considerable resources, Barnes amassed the greatest collection of post-Impressionist and Modern art ever seen. Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh--men who would eventually be considered the greats had some of their best work in Barnes's personal gallery. When the collector tried to share this work with his neighbors in Philadelphia, he was ridiculed and lambasted. Angered by this snobbery and shortsightedness, the rich man built his own gallery in a suburb outside the city. When he died, he left provisions for the Barnes Foundation. His art would remain where he had hung it himself, and the school he had founded there would continue. His paintings would not be sold, loaned, or moved anywhere; his gallery would not be open to the public for cattle-calls and viewings.
This set-up lasted until the 1990s, by which time all of Barnes' contemporaries were gone and new management was brought in to his Foundation. What happened then is the main plot point of The Art of the Steal, a new documentary by Don Argott (Rock School, Two Days in April). The movie traces the Barnes Foundation from one man's stubborn endeavor through another's attempts to make it financially solvent to the current dismantling of the historic building and the hijacking of the material by the city of Philadelphia.
The Art of the Steal has a narrative full of enough melodrama for a great historical epic. Barnes was a New Deal Liberal, a true example of the American Dream, and he was consistently at odds with the conservative newspaper establishment of Philadelphia. Walter Annenberg, a confidante of Richard Nixon, would spend decades trashing Barnes in his paper and ultimately trying to get his hands on his paintings. He is a malevolent specter that hovers over everything. Richard Glanton ends up being the second great villain to enter the scene. He was the one who first broke up the collection to send it on the road, claiming he was raising money to fix up the Foundation building. He ultimately squandered the finances and his power on petty things. Surprisingly, his biggest crime was getting bounced from the foundation and leaving it without any real leadership. That's when the vultures flew in through the door Glanton had opened.
The impact of the Barnes Foundation is astounding. The art that Barnes preserved and the methods of education he promoted cannot be discounted. While his locking the paintings away may seem anti-populist to some, the truth is he wished to foster intimate relationships with the work. Museums were cold, impersonal, and they stifled individual opinion. Barnes never turned the common man away or forced them to stand behind a velvet rope to see his Van Gogh. But then, The Art of the Steal isn't even really about how one should interact with great paintings, it's about freedom of choice and how far we should go to respect one man's wishes. Barnes's desires were made clear, and the political pirates that rode into his home in the last twenty years care little for his vision, much less the art that inspired it.
The Art of the Steal attempts to dig around in the trash and figure out who is responsible and why. Allegedly charitable organizations are the ones putting up the money for the move, though there is government influence and cash, as well. Of the few pillagers who go on the record about this, Governor Ed Rendell seems mostly reasonable, but he also comes off as shifty and evasive. (By contrast, Richard Glanton is positively gregarious and forthcoming.) The big question lingers: if you can raise money to build a new gallery, why not just renovate the old one and leave it where it is, according to the dead man's plan? Argott's film suffers from almost exclusively being from the point of view of the supporters, but the fact that the people making the decisions declined to be interviewed only lends credence to the conspiracy theories. Still, Argott maybe could have broken out some more math. Are Rendell's claims about the Foundations solvency at all credible?
Even with lingering questions, there is an undeniable potency to this story of a visionary old crank and his seemingly iron-clad plan to circumnavigate the establishment having the locks broken and his ideas demolished. The visual difference between the old Foundation building and the personal touches Barnes added to his displays and the crass billboards Philadelphia are putting up around their construction site is obvious. Art as marketing, personal philosophy as sloganeering, the traffic fumes hanging over the proceedings like ominous clouds. At this point, the bad guys have won, and The Art of the Steal may be the last snapshot to preserve what should have lasted forever.