The Art of the Steal paints cultural conspiracy in broad strokes

Philadelphia's tug-o'-war over the Barnes Foundation

Painter Henri Matisse described Albert C. Barnes' collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art as "The only sane place to see art in America." In the first half of the 20th century, Barnes assembled a massive collection of masterpieces, including dozens by Matisse and Cézanne, and almost 200 by Renoir. The Barnes Foundation building itself resembles a work of art, with paintings, furniture and other decorations arranged closely together according to aesthetics, rather than artist or period. Admirers called the Barnes Foundation a "perfect jewel box" that makes more conventional museums look stark and sterile by comparison.

Barnes waged cataclysmic feuds with the Philadelphia art and civic establishment when he established the Barnes Foundation in the suburb of Merion. He kept visitors to a minimum and vigorously opposed the idea of relocating the collection. Barnes died in 1951 but, as The Art of the Steal reveals, the battles over his collection raged on for more than half a century afterward. The engrossing documentary frames a passionate debate between artistic concerns and a dead man's wishes on one side, and the hunger for money and power on the other.

Even before director Don Argott explores the contemporary controversies, Barnes makes a fascinating subject. He was a self-made man who earned his fortune by manufacturing drugs before becoming an ingenious art collector. Barnes emphasized the foundation's educational mission over any responsibility to the public. According to one interviewee, he was more likely to grant access to a plumber than an art critic.

Since Barnes had no children, his will stipulated that the board of trustees draw from Lincoln University, a small African-American college seemingly independent from Barnes' enemies in WASPish Philadelphia society. Trouble follows, though, when hugely ambitious African-American lawyer Richard H. Glanton takes over as head of the board. Glanton circumvents Barnes' wishes and sends the exhibit on a lucrative tour, then basks in the glow of the art world's attention.

Any decision involving the foundation becomes some kind of flashpoint. When Glanton tries to increase public access to the foundation (located on a residential street), the neighbors complain about traffic jams. The attempt to accommodate the crowds with a proposed parking lot leads to lawsuits and even allegations of racism. (In fact, the culture clashes surrounding Glanton's tenure at the Barnes Foundation inspired Thomas Gibbons' play Permanent Collection, which Horizon Theatre produced in 2006.)

More recently, the Pew Charitable Trust gained control of the board and announced plans to move the collection to Philadelphia, violating Barnes' will and outraging admirers of its original arrangement. For a while, The Art of the Steal grants the pro-Philadelphian side some provocative questions: Should the original plan remain in place if the foundation can't support itself? And shouldn't art classics be made available to the widest possible audience?

As the title suggests, The Art of the Steal tilts away from that argument. Argott primarily gives the floor to a feisty band of crusading writers, professors and former foundation students who oppose the move in fiery language. Attorney Nick Tinari barks "Philistines!" in an interview during a protest outside a meeting of Philadelphia swells.

While Argott doesn't torture flacks and other straw men on camera like Michael Moore, the refusal of some politicos to be interviewed looks predictably damning. The film makes allegations of a high-level "cabal" and shady deals between major philanthropies and Philadelphia City Hall. Revelations about funds hidden in the Philadelphia city budget make the conspiracy theories at once salacious and persuasive.

Like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Art of the Steal takes potentially dry, bewildering paper trails and turns them into a kind of thriller. Although the film tracks political maneuvers and legal brinkmanship, The Art of the Steal refreshingly avoids the kind of overt left vs. right ideological strife of many contemporary documentaries. The film's criticisms of Philadelphia's indiscriminate boosterism could apply just as easily to the flaws in Atlanta's character: "A city that has any sense of its own identity doesn't take about being a 'world-class city.' It is what it is."

Despite the undeniable beauty of the Barnes Foundation's artwork, The Art of the Steal ultimately depicts it as kind of a reverse version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Gaze at the $25 billion collection and you can see reflected the unsightly hunger for money and power.