In Search of Thieves: A Review of Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal

Directed by Don Argott, 2009

Directed by Don Argott, 2009

In high school, my psychology teacher ran an activity in which everyone wrote down on a piece of paper a crime they would commit if guaranteed they wouldn’t get caught. I don’t remember the point of the activity, and I don’t remember what answer I wrote down. I do remember, however, what a friend of mine wrote down. She would steal all the world’s art and put it on public display in the streets.

I thought of this “crime” as I watched The Art of the Steal, director Don Argott’s documentary following the tumultuous tale of the Barnes Foundation’s $25 billion collection of post-impressionist and modernist art.

The story begins with Dr. Albert C. Barnes. After making his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry, he amasses of collection of major artworks including pieces by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet and Van Gogh. Barnes, portrayed as eccentric and cantankerous, sets up the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution. The collection was left to the estate following his death, and his will stipulated that the art must remain unsold and unmoved from its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania. In part, this particular proviso was set in place because of Dr. Barnes’s animosity toward those who held power in Philadelphia.

In the 1990s, the battle between those who supported Barnes intention of keeping the artwork at the Foundation’s location on the Pennsylvania mainline and those who wanted it moved to downtown Philadelphia becomes central to the film’s tale of corruption and corporate greed. This depiction is where the film begins to unravel. The struggle between two opposing parties here is portrayed as big business, corporate buffoons versus a small group of well-intentioned intelligentsia. Mr. Argott clearly chooses sides in this story – the side of those who’d like to keep the artworks in Merion. However, he also seems blissfully ignorant, at best, that he is not really taking sides with David fighting Goliath.

The interviews and footage of his good guys here speak for themselves. Take, for instance, Nick Tinari. Described as a former Barnes student and attorney, he is shown protesting an event in Philadelphia where political figures and power brokers are celebrating on the grounds of collection’s new location.  “Philistines!” he screams out, fist raised high and banging against a fence between himself and the party.  (Yes, he actually used this term.) At alternating points of the film, it is stated that this move is “the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II,” and (my personal favorite) that “Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum.” These voices are not the voices of a grassroots movement fighting the powers that be in the big bad city. They are not the voices of struggling artists. They are not the voices of a socialist movement. They are not even the voices of people who love art.

They are the voices of people who believe that they have more of a right to love this art than anyone else, and this is the documentary’s ultimate failure in making a convincing argument. Whether or not you believe that Dr. Barnes’s legacy has been dishonored or that some great injustice has been done, I am reminded of my 12th grade psychology class for exactly this reason.  Art is meant to be shared. Art is made for people to see, to feel, to hold close, and I plan on visiting the Barnes collection at its new home in Philadelphia the next opportunity I get. I’ll hope Mr. Argott’s interviewees won’t suggest I am a Philistine for doing so.