Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Art of the Steal: Movie Review

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Art of the Steal: Movie Review

Article excerpt

Backroom wranglings over the prestigious Barnes Foundation art collection play out as good guy vs. bad guy in 'The Art of the Steal' documentary.

No less an eminence than Henri Matisse once commented that The Barnes

Foundation is "the only sane place to see art in America."

Established in 1922 by the millionaire Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the

privately held foundation, housed in a 12-acre jewel-box-like

arboretum in leafy Lower Merion, Pa., five miles outside

Philadelphia, contains perhaps the greatest concentration of

post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpieces in the world - 181

Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, 7

Van Goghs, to name just a few.

The combined value of these paintings, not to mention the Barnes's

extensive collection of African art; old masters; ancient Egyptian,

Greek, and Roman art; medieval manuscripts; and American paintings;

is more than $25 billion.

The documentary "The Art of the Steal," directed by Don Argott,

chronicles how the foundation, since Barnes's death in 1951, has been

undermined by Pennsylvania power brokers. Barnes's will stipulated

that the paintings would never be loaned, sold, or removed from the

building. Until Barnes's protegee, Violette de Mazia, died in 1988,

this was pretty much the status quo. Subsequently, through a series

of quasi-Machiavellian machinations, Barnes's will has been whittled

down. The collection, despite numerous protests, is now scheduled to

be removed from Merion and installed in 2012 in a new facility in

downtown Philadelphia.

How did this come to pass? The filmmakers characterize the power

brokers - who include Gov. Edward Rendell, former foundation

president Richard Glanton, the late Walter Annenberg, and the Pew

Foundation - as the bad guys. Good guys include a pageant of angry

art critics and historians, NAACP chairman and Barnes family friend

Julian Bond, and former foundation members and students.

The film's good versus bad scenario is, while understandable, too

simplistic. To comprehend the dynamics of the situation, one needs to

go back to the foundation's origins. …

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