The Art of the Steal (5/10)
by Tony Medley
Run Time 101 minutes.
OK for children, although
it will bore them to death.
The Last Temptation is
the greatest Treason;
To do the right deed for
the wrong reason.
T. S. Eliot, Murder in
This is a hatchet job from
the get-go. It’s about an autocratic, petty, arrogant multimillionaire,
Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who amassed the greatest array of
Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, including
181 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59
by Matisse and 46 by Picasso, and basically hid them away in
Merion, PA., a suburb of Philadelphia, limiting their viewing to a
chosen few. Piqued by his treatment by the elites in Philadelphia,
he restricted attendance and refused to
loan paintings to other institutions. To be certain that very few people
would be able to ever see these masterpieces, according to this
film he established what he thought was an iron-clad trust prohibiting
the paintings from ever leaving Merion, stipulating
that the collection should "never be
loaned, sold or otherwise deposed.” Then he gave control to the
trustees of Lincoln University, the first black college in America. Some
people challenged his trust and have tried to get the collection moved
to Philadelphia and open them to a much wider audience.
This film tries to paint
Barnes as an iconoclastic hero and the people who have been fighting his
trust to try to open the paintings to wider view as villains. But is
that the way to look at it? Was Barnes a hero? Is a man who tried to
lock away some of the greatest paintings in history so that they may be
viewed by only a special view someone to be lionized? Are the people who
tried to free them for viewing by a much wider audience to be villified?
Indeed, this film is
terminally biased. Just as one example, it leaves the viewer with the
belief that Barnes specifically stated that the works should never be
moved to Philadelphia. However, in an article, Barnard C. Watson, who is
now the chairman of the Barnes Foundation board of trustees and is
maligned in the movie, states that the film ignores paragraph 11 of
Barnes’ trust indenture, which states, “Should the said collection ever
. . . become impossible to administer the trust hereby created
concerning said collection of pictures, then the property and funds . .
. shall be applied to an object as nearly within the scope herein
indicated . . . such application to be in connection with an existing
organization . . . in Philadelphia, Pa., or its suburbs.”
The people interviewed who
are blasting the move to Philadelphia come across as elitist snobs with
a selfish view of the world. One makes the statement that one of the
paintings in the Barnes collection is worth a half billion dollars by
itself. This despite the fact, unmentioned in the film, that the highest
price ever paid for any painting is $150 million for a Jackson Pollock
sold by David Geffen at Sotheby’s.
Some of the guys painted as
bad by director Don Argott are interviewed. One is Pennsylvania Governor
Ed Rendell. All the interviews are mere snippets. The main issue that I
can see is why in the world is it all right for a megalomaniac
multimillionaire, who could easily qualify as a James Bond super
villain, to buy up a vast number of great paintings and basically hide
them away from the world? Isn’t it better that these paintings be
located in a place, like Philadelphia, where many more people can see
them than in a place like Merion where the number of viewers is severely
limited to, as I understand it, just a few hundred a day? But this point
is never made in the movie by any of those interviewed. I find it hard
to believe that none of them mentioned this. Clearly the interviews with
the targets of the film, like Rendell, are severely edited à la “60
Minutes” style and probably taken out of context in order to make the
filmmakers’ point, rather than to give an unbiased view of the
It also contains a recurring statement
that some named persons refused to be interviewed for this film."
Well, maybe those named persons had good reasons not to sit for
interviews. Maybe they realized they had no control over the way a
biased filmmaker would make use of what they said and how what they
said would be edited and taken out of context.
However, what this movie
tries to prove is that the people who wanted to move the collection to
Philadelphia were motivated by greed. It’s not unreasonable to think
that the interviews were artfully edited to make Argott’s position
appear rational and their opponents greedy. This feeling is buttressed
by Argott’s failing to disclose the above referenced paragraph 11. After
doing a little research and reflection, this comes across as an
emotionally packed piece of propaganda. In addition to being apparently
dishonest, it’s too long and byzantine. Even so, it fooled my audience,
who applauded at the end.
But, for the sake of
argument, what if those challenging the trust and trying to move the
collection to Philadelphia are, in fact, motivated by greed? Is it right
to criticize them for doing the right thing for the wrong reason?