The Art of the Steal
Even Dr. Barnes had a little Captain in him.

Theatrical Release Date: 03/26/2010
Director: Don Argott

Dr. Albert C. Barnes made a fortune from inventing Argyrol, a treatment for gonorrhea (and gonorrheal blindness in newborns) that has gone out of favor for newer drugs but dominated the medical landscape in the early part of the 20th century. He invested that money in mostly post-impressionist art and eventually collected an estimated $25 billion dollars of works by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and other masters.

Spurned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and art critics in the early 1920s, Barnes vowed to never let his collection fall into their hands and established the Barnes Foundation. Dedicated to the education of art students, the Foundation set rules about public access to the collection and the Barnes Foundation was situated six miles away from Philadelphia in a residential neighborhood, making public access to the site even more difficult.

Barnes’ death in 1951 was the first step towards a power play for his collection. He had drafted a very specific will, which maintained that the collection never be moved, for any purpose, that the purpose of the collection was for education, not public access per se, and that the administrational powers be given to Lincoln University but over the next 50 years, a combination of their mismanagement and the scheming of local and state officials and “cultural elite” would seek to find a way around his supposedly legally-binding wishes.

Director Don Argott seeks to give audiences the background story on Barnes and his Foundation, as well as lay out the plays made by his opposition to gain control of the art. It’s a fascinating story, rife with the kind of drama and intrigue one might expect on a daytime soap opera. Argott nicely plots the film, as just when we think we’ve seen the last villain in the saga, another more nefarious plot rises up like a Hydra head.

While the focus of the film and its effectiveness could be argued both ways, the bottom line is that the film is about the ability of those with money and power to circumvent even the most ironclad of wills. Barnes did the most he could to protect his collection from falling into the hands of he Philidelphia Museum of Art but in the end, that’s exactly where it sits today. A 3.5 out of 5, “The Art of the Steal” could have done more to explore the issues of public access vs. Barnes’ educational manifesto but those who say the film declined to show the other side are forgetting that all of those government officials and non-profit managers said no to requests for an interview – that side is missing because they wouldn’t speak, not because Argott wouldn’t present their perspective.