Monday, February 22, 2010

Legalized Plunder: The Art of the Steal

Americans expect their property rights to be respected, including their right to dispose of property posthumously as they see fit. However, those rights evidently do not apply to when the property in question is especially valuable. At least that seems to be the case in Pennsylvania, where the state, the city of Philadelphia, and a group of powerful non-profit foundations have in effect commandeered the priceless Barnes Collection according to Don Argott’s eye-opening documentary, The Art of the Steal (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York following high profile screenings at the New York and Toronto Film Festivals.

Steal opens with the unseemly but appropriate video of Philly Mayor John Street’s news conference, in which he overflows with glee at the prospect of finally getting the Barnes in Philadelphia. All that is missing is a football for Street to spike before doing an end-zone dance. However, Albert C. Barnes hated Philadelphia. The self-made entrepreneur and Roosevelt Democrat amassed probably the greatest private collection of impressionist and early modern art. Yet, when he unveiled his collection in the City of Brotherly Love, it was panned by the local press and mocked by the chattering classes.

Eventually, Philadelphia realized what they had missed, but it was too late. Barnes had established his Foundation in Lower Merion, where some of the greatest Renoirs, C├ęzannes, Matisses, Picassos, and Degases in the world would be part of a progressive art school, with only limited opportunities for public viewing.

When the childless Barnes passed away, the terms of his will were explicitly designed to keep his collection intact and out of the grasping hands of the Philadelphia and its despised Art Institute. However, as the original trustees passed away, control of the Barnes Foundation eventually fell to Lincoln University, a traditionally African American school that was safely outside the Pennsylvania establishment in Barnes’s day, but had become state affiliated in 1972. As Argott makes crystal clear, from that point on, Barnes’s intentions no longer governed the Foundation that still bears his name.

One of the unspoken ironies of Steal is that Barnes, the New Dealer and sworn enemy of Nixon crony Walter Annenberg, was ultimately undone by Democrats like Street and Governor Ed Rendell. At least the governor consented to an on-camera interview, justifying the hijacking of the Barnes on grounds that incontrovertibly contradict the spirit of his will (like the fact that more people will be able to gawk at his collection on the Franklin Parkway). Conversely, representatives of the Pew Charitable Trust, which Argott identifies as a shadowy power player in the takeover of the Barnes, conspicuously declined to participate in the film.

Argott makes a thoroughly convincing case, lucidly establishing the timeline of the Barnes’s effective demise. Though he is covering the rarified art world, Argott approaches the Barnes case like a criminal investigation, and with good reason. He also memorably establishes the mind-blowing dimensions of the stakes involved, establishing the term “Barnesworthy.” As art-dealer Richard Feigen explains at a blockbuster Sotheby’s early modern show, most of the work on display that would soon be bought for millions of dollars would not have merited a second glance from Barnes. Though Feigen himself declined to assign a dollar figure to the entire collection, its value would be estimated in court filings at twenty five billion (with a “b”) dollars. That is what “Barnesworthy” means.

Steal is a smart, persuasive documentary that challenges some previously sacrosanct notions regarding art. Viewers will start to question whether it is really in the public interest that great art be tour bus accessible, or if society might be better served by the Barnes approach, reserving such masterpieces for dedicated artists and students.

Argott assembles a convincing case that the new projected Philadelphia home for the Barnes Collection overtly violates both the letter and spirit of the Barnes Foundation trust. While some of the finer points of estate law might sound dry, Argott makes it all quite compelling, pulling viewers through step-by-step with remarkable assuredness.

Steal is a fascinating documentary that also has wider political implications, particularly for those concerned about private property rights in the wake of the controversial Supreme Court Kelo decision regarding eminent domain. Highly recommended for both political and arts-minded audiences, Steal opens in New York this Friday (2/26) at the IFC Center.