Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Art of the Steal

Release Date: 2009
Production Company: 9.14 Pictures
Director: Don Argott
Run time: 101 minutes
Seen on: Netflix Instant, Sundance Channel
Recommended: Highly
Next Air Date: Wednesday, 7/18 9:00-10:45AM, 4:15-6:00PM on Sundance Channel, Baltimore Comcast Channel 165
Website: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-art-of-the-steal

The Art of the Steal tells the tale of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA.  Located less then 5 miles from downtown Philadelphia, the Barnes held one of the best collections of Impressionist and Modern masters in the world.  Barnes Foundation was founded in 1922 as an educational institution. 

The purpose of the art was to teach students, not pander to the cultural elite.  His collection was exhibited to the public in 1923 and denounced as "primitive."  Paintings were hung for its aesthetic value alongside furniture and art from around the world.  Dr. Albert Barnes shunned the "elite" of Philadelphia and what they stood for.  "Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum."  "The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution."  Dr. Barnes was determined to keep his art out of the hands of the downtown interests.

Dr. Barnes' will was written to ensure the preservation of the school in perpetuity.  The commerical value would be removed if they were never sold or lent.  After Barnes' death in 1951, the Foundation was kept intact.  The Foundation and will was not weakened until 1988, upon the death of Violette DeMazia, Barnes' "Last Living Apostle."

The Art of the Steal chronicles the struggle of educators and polticians to "control" the Barnes Collection.  The argument was made that the original structure in Merion, PA was unfit for the collection.  To preserve it, one must move it to a proper location, perhaps in downtown Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It makes you realize that the fantastic, earth-shatteringly important collection was used as a pawn of politicians and charitable trusts. 

This film not only sheds light on an important and outrageous cultural struggle, but also presents it in a compelling way.  The news clips are shown on an old tv.  Newspaper clippings and photos are presented on a cork board, much like a detective would show his suspects.  The use of music is compelling and heightens the drama.  But above all, there are compelling stories from past students and educators which draw you into the film.  Once you realize what the Barnes stood for, you are that much more outraged at what they tried, and unfortuantely ultimately succeeded in doing.  The Barnes on the parkway opened in Philadephia in May 2012.  Tickets are sold online for this collection.  Tickets and online museum store are sold in direct contradiction to a man's wishes and will.  I urge you to watch this before your next trip to Philadelphia.

"It is the greatest act of cultural vandalism since WWII."

"This is the scandal of the art world in modern America."

"The name of the game is, if you're going to leave your paintings somewhere, don't let there be a politican within 500 yards."

"It's fair to say that there was a vast conspiracy to move the Barnes."

"One man's conspiracy is another man's political consensus."

"It's about whoever controls $25 Billion worth of art and everything else is bullshit."

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