Don Argott's terrific documentary Art of the Steal starts with the announcement that the art collection the late Albert Barnes began amassing in 1922 will move from Lower Merion into downtown Philadelphia five miles away, something that was decidedly against Barnes' wishes. The film's narrative works its way backward through the foundation's tumultuous history and reveals the sordid backroom dealings that took place to ensure it would end up in Philadelphia.
Argott takes us back to Barnes' beginning. We learn that he was a doctor who made his money when he discovered medical uses for Argyrol, a new antiseptic silver compound, and formed a company to market it. He started going to Paris on a regular basis and developed an affinity for the work of Renoir and Cezanne, and then Matisse and Picasso, at a time when their work wasn't held in the high regard it is today. In fact, when Barnes first showed his collection in 1923 at a Philadelphia gallery, local critics derided it as "primitive."
So he vowed to keep his collection away from the city, which he described as a "depressing intellectual slum." Instead, he housed it at a 12-acre arboretum just outside of Philadelphia. Matisse called the venue the "only sane place to see art in America." It wasn't open to the public; rather, you had to enroll as a student to see the paintings. That's how Barnes wanted it. He didn't want the paintings to ever leave the arboretum.
After Barnes died in 1951, his disciple Violette DeMazia became president and adhered to Barnes' wishes that the collection stay at the arboretum. But after her death, control became more contested, and lawsuits were waged as the Philadelphia city leaders (with some assistance from deep-pocketed Pew Charitable Trusts board members) tried to relocate the collection to downtown Philadelphia, where they said it would help boost tourism and be better able to sustain itself.
Detractors called the city officials and trustees vandals and protested vociferously as they attempted to keep the art the way Barnes wanted it. That battle is well documented in the film, which rightly bills itself as "The Untold Story of the Barnes Foundation." Even if art isn't your thing, there's plenty of drama in this David vs. Goliath story to keep you on the edge of your seat.
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