MPI // 2009 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // July 22nd, 2010
The true story of a multi-billion dollar art heist and how they got away with it.
The world of politics can be a dark, vulturous place where only the rich and powerful survive (until they get a hot intern, at least). Turns out, power players in the world of art can be just as bad (usually minus the interns). So when the two worlds collide, as in The Art of the Steal, you get a mess that makes Pollock look like Mondrian.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Albert C. Barnes made his money inventing a treatment for gonorrhea. He spent that money immersing himself in the exploding 20th century art scene. It wasn't long before he formed his own ideas about art; chiefly, that it was cheapened and commodified by profit-driven museums and their bourgeois patrons. So Barnes bought hundreds of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modernist paintings by folks like Matisse, Renoir, Monet, and Picasso and promptly hung them in a custom-built mansion in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He established the Barnes Foundation, a school that taught art history to blue collar-types and kept its doors closed to the public (except for a few open viewing days per week). Needless to say, Barnes made a lot of people angry, specifically the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fast forward to Barnes's death in 1951: suddenly the foundation is in flux, having been left to Lincoln University and thrown into a power struggle between Philly elitists, charities, and board members. Barnes's trust forbid the showing or moving of his art, but his collection was immediately taken on a tour of the world, opened to the public, and is now being moved to a new home along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Does this priceless collection of art belong to the world, or should a man's last will and trust be upheld at all costs?
The Art of the Steal wastes little time on the nuances of a discussion about the public's right to art. Instead, it's a thrilling, one-sided, and completely biased documentary that aims to get us all riled up. Don Argott's film is as much about paintings as it is about public trust and ownership, and he presents his argument with a barrage of cinematic illustration, talking heads, and palatable outrage.
Every documentary has a message, and some are more blatant than others. Here, Argott is clearly on the side of the Barnes philosophy: uphold the man's vision, described in his trust, that his $25 billion dollar art collection never be sold, moved, or broken up. It's this one-sidedness that gives the film urgency. Despite the movie's obvious support for the underdog, Argott still leaves room for debate. He gives everyone a chance to speak, from supporters and students of Barnes to the Pennsylvania governor and former Barnes Foundation board members -- it's a shame some of the larger players declined to be interviewed. By the end of the film, you're likely to either be outraged at the connivances or optimistic about the future art-stop on the Ben Franklin.
The story isn't easily summarized, but Argott does his best to present the facts in a straightforward manner, with plenty of pictures, headlines, and even a couple flowcharts. The film paints Dr. Barnes as an eccentric, New Deal millionaire fueled by a hatred of the Philadelphia establishment. He only fought the big guys, like the Inquirer or the Museum of Art, so it's natural that it'd be those very institutions that would tear apart his trust decades later. The story does become confusing as various charities and politicians wrestle over control of the Barnes Foundation board. Argott edges dangerously close to being petty and confrontational as he starts to focus a little too much on small art protests outside of cocktail parties -- sorry, but showing a couple dozen people yelling at rich folks doesn't strengthen any argument.
The Art of the Steal is a well-crafted message movie. Like saving the dolphins or killing the fast food restaurants, this documentary is trying to get your feathers ruffled enough to take action. It's clearly and unapologetically on the side of Dr. Barnes and his followers which, in turn, forces the viewer to choose a side (either the earthy-yet-haute art scholars or the greedy-yet-touristically-minded politicians).
The film is presented with a highly polished, post-production heavy aesthetic, that is both sharp and colorful. Argott's interview footage is bright and interestingly framed while the grainy archival shots of the museum are about as good as they can get. Sadly, most of the interiors of the Barnes Foundation are shown via still photography. The audio is adequate as well, with a fair amount of accusatory music to set the mood. Unfortunately, the only special feature on the disc is a trailer; I'm not sure how feasible it would have been, but an image gallery of the displays from The Barnes would have been pretty cool.
The divisiveness of this documentary will rightly turn off a lot of viewers -- especially in the Philadelphia community. The film's bias never manages to leave the forefront, and too many of the later interviews devolve into "he said, she said" arguments. For example: was the Barnes Foundation run into bankruptcy by a gang of boardroom pirates, or was its financial viability always in question as the building became more costly to upkeep? Facts and evidence are overshadowed by talking heads making loud claims on each side.
The Art of the Steal takes aim at some pretty hefty players, including Pennsylvania state politicians, judges, and newspapers as well as national charitable organizations; it establishes a clear set of good guys, bad guys, pawns, and goons, the presence of which is sure to spark discussion. Those looking for a general overview of the situation, free of spin, are wise to look elsewhere.
The Art of the Steal is a fascinating and infuriating op/ed documentary. It's certainly biased, but at the same time no one comes away a winner: a man's legacy is trampled on, his trust broken by lawmakers, and Pennsylvania taxpayers unknowingly losing out on over $100 million dollars. Regardless of your interest in fine art, this is a film that should be seen if only to peer into the murky morass of bureaucratic politics.
It's not the fairest documentary, but it will certainly get people talking.
Guilty of being a highly biased, but highly entertaining, movie about some paintings.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Website