Its detractors call it “The scandal of the art world in modern America.” The private art collection of Albert C. Barnes, “the single most important cultural artifact in America of the first half of the 20th Century,” and how it was hijacked by an unholy alliance of museums, politicians, and custodians determined to exploit its marvels for profit, is the story told in The Art Of The Steal, a compelling, infuriating documentary from filmmaker Don Argott that sets up a classic case of corporate greed vs. legal and artistic integrity. The working-class son of a Philadelphia butcher, Barnes made a fortune with an antiseptic compound around the turn of the last century.
A self-taught art lover, he traveled in Paris and bought a staggering array of Impressionist paintings by Cezanne, Seurat, Picasso and Van Gogh—to name but a few. Contemporary estimates value the collection at $25 to $35 billion. As one member of the Barnes Foundation board of trustees puts it, “You’d need some kind of a nation to buy it.” In 1923, he held a public showing of his collection in Philadelphia, where the work was denounced by provincial critics. Barnes called Philadelphia “an intellectual slum,” and removed his collection to his private residence in suburban Merion, granting access only to art lovers and students, not tourists or the general public. Barnes had a curator’s eye, displaying his paintings on honey-colored walls, grouped according to aesthetics, not chronology. Renoirs, Matisses and Modiglianis hung cheek-by-jowl with Barnes’ collection of sculptural antique hinges and African masks, making no distinction between “high” and “low” art, or art and craft. But Barnes died suddenly in 1951. The terms of his trust specified the collection was never to be sold, moved out of Merion, or delivered into the greasy palms of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Barnes willed administration of the Foundation to a small black college, Lincoln University, upon the death of his own successor). But Argott’s film details how the local art establishment, city and state politicians, charitable trusts, and a few opportunistic stewards along the way, set out on a 30-year campaign to circumvent those terms. A harrowing look at the depths to which profiteers will sink in the name of the public good, and a fascinating portrait of a truly eccentric player in 20th Century modern art. (Not rated) 101 minutes. (★★★) LJ