March 13, 2010

MOVIES: The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009)

Argott's movie about the controversial move of a Philadelphia museum is too one-sided to deserve being called a "documentary," but as a piece of agitprop, it's moderately entertaining.

In the early 20th century, Philadelphia physician Albert Barnes began to collect post-Impressionist art. He was drawn to painters who the art world was not yet taking seriously -- Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse -- and developed one of the world's great collections of their work. He housed the paintings in a gallery he had built in Merion Township, about five miles outside Philadelphia, and chose to display them in his own eccentric groupings.

When he loaned the art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a 1923 exhibition, the local art critics were not kind, calling it "primitive, debased art." Barnes's response to this was, essentially, a childish snit; he founded the Barnes Foundation, a trust that was to manage the art after his death, and whose charter included his instructions that the art was never to be loaned or sold, and that public access to the gallery was to be strictly limited to a handful of visitors during a few hours each week.

Barnes died in the early 1950s, and his last surviving "apostle" -- that's the word the movie uses -- died roughly thirty years later, setting in motion a decades-long battle for control of the Barnes Foundation and its art; eventually, the Foundation was taken over by the movers and shakers of the Philadelphia art world, who made plans to move the collection to a new gallery in Philadelphia.

As you can guess from the title of the movie, director Argott sees this as an outrage, a great violation of Barnes's wishes, and he isn't much interested in presenting opposing views. We are given frequent "X would not consent to be interviewed for this film" captions, meant to suggest that X is hiding something, or is ashamed of his behavior, when it seems more likely to me that X simply chose not to take part in a project that was obviously not going to present their views with any sympathy.

It is clear, certainly, that there was a great deal of shady deal-making going on, and that those who wanted to move the Barnes collection took advantage of every political and legal loophole that was available to them. On the other hand, those loopholes were available, and it is the job of lawyers to exploit such things. There is no evidence that anyone involved did anything illegal, and if there had been, you may be sure that Argott would have wasted no time in pointing it out.

So I kept coming back to one question that Argott doesn't seem interested in: Who is harmed by the move of the collection to Philadelphia? Certainly it's good for the city, which will see an increase in tourism; art lovers will benefit from easier access to a glorious collection. It doesn't seem that Merion Township was reaping any particular financial benefit from the presence of the Barnes, given the limited number of visitors it could support; when the Barnes did attempt to increase the number of visitors, the neighbors immediately began complaining about zoning violations and the increase in automotive traffic. Barnes is dead, so he's not being harmed.

The only people I can think of who might conceivably be harmed are the students of the Barnes Foundation, which was founded as an educational institution, but there's so little emphasis placed on that role in the last two decades that it's not entirely clear they continue to fulfill that role. Even if they do, the worst their students face is that their access to the collection is no longer near-exclusive.

This isn't a remotely fair or objective movie in any way, but if you make the effort to mentally dial down Argott's hysteria, you will get a reasonable introduction to the controversy.

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