The Art of the Steal

©2009, IFC Films

Main gallery of the Barnes Foundation.

“The main function of the museum has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts.” – Albert C. Barnes

The Art of the Steal tells the story of Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his Foundation, its champions and its enemies. John Street, Mayor of Philadelphia, speaks before an assembly and can’t even remember whether the Barnes is in Merion or Lower Merion. The Barnes, the largest single collection of art in the world, estimated to be worth a staggering $25 to $30 billion, is scheduled to be moved to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012. The documentary covers the long, winding, sketchy road that led to this coup.

One-hundred and eighty-one Renoirs, fifty-nine paintings by Matisse including The Joy of Life, forty-six Picassos, seven Van Goghs, six Seurats. Arranged by aesthetic value rather than periods or artists, no museum in the world matches the diversity and presentation of works at the Barnes—founded in 1922 as an educational institution open to all students and admirers of art. Even the disgraced Barry Munitz, former President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, whose collection spans a campus of seven buildings overlooking Los Angeles says, “It is not a little place. It’s an absolutely essential, critical, earth-shakingly important place.”

An interesting side-note: Stephen Salisbury’s October 28, 2001, article “Painted Into a Corner?” appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer quoting Mr. Munitz speaking of the Barnes’ financial troubles, “”If they [the Barnes Foundation] cannot energize the community, the question must be asked: Should they exist? The jury is still out.” This is, of course, the same Mr. Munitz who was forced to resign from the Getty’s board over approvals of exorbitant severance packages and expense budgets.

Dr. Barnes made his fortune in the early twentieth century developing a silver nitrate-based antiseptic, Argyrol, which was instrumental in preventing gonorrheal blindness in newborns. He was introduced to art before it became a commodity in the modern world. His acquisitions were driven largely by aesthetics, rather than perceived value. Less interesting paintings have gone on market for $8 million to $35 million at Sotheby’s. “Some pictures are unattractive and significant. Some paintings are attractive and insignificant. This painting is both unattractive and insignificant,” says art dealer Richard L. Feigen while standing next to an unremarkable specimen of Matisse’s work. He just looks ill when he thinks about what the Barnes collection is worth, intrinsically, compared to the overinflated auction market for lesser works.

Jay Raymond, a former student and teacher at the Barnes, underscores the importance of the Barnes. “The realization of a set of ideas,” he calls it. Barnes put the works together in a natural setting, juxtaposing different artists in ways that tell a story about humans. “The basic fundamental experience of life is the same,” says Mr. Raymond. “Art isn’t something separate from life. It is life.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer was the voicebox of Walter Annenberg who, like William Randolph Hearst, used his publishing empire to influence and threaten other power-brokers to his advantage. Mr. Annenberg, the film argues, was one of several moguls threatened by Dr. Barnes’ sensibilities.

The documentary takes an interesting turn when it presents former foundation president, Richard S. Glanton (1990-1998) as the seeming antagonist, set on controverting Dr. Barnes’ wishes. Glanton hardly mentions the art, or education. “I’ and “me” are his most frequently used pronouns, and it’s amusing how oblivious he is to his own ego. The plot twist is that Mr. Glanton kept Philadelphia from getting their hands on the collection, but it plays like a badly-scripted drama where you’re wondering why Mr. Glanton and his opposition in Merion didn’t discuss the one thing that would have made his true motives clearer.

This is not a simple crime. No one is entirely innocent or guilty. Those who meant well were myopic to the longer-term complications of running the foundation, keeping it up against inflation which would undoubtedly whittle away at the returns from the initial $10 million trust. Those like Mr. Glanton who had ideas which would have retained control of the collection under the Barnes were instantly vilified. The failure of one side to work out a compromise with the other led inexorably to the decimation of the Barnes.

David D’Arcy of The Art Newspaper called the move the creation of a “McBarnes.” Those communities, he says, that talk of becoming world class cities have no identity of their own… and Philadelphia, he argues, was trying to steal one for itself. Even Fox 29, owned by Rupert Murdoch who acquired $3.2 billion of Walter Annenberg’s media empire in 1988, raised the point that if the Barnes Foundation was able to raise the money for the move, they should have been able to raise the money to maintain the Barnes where it was located. The Foundation’s expanded Board voted against this, knowing that the Barnes in Merion would fail, giving the state its ammunition to make the move happen.

The PEW, the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundation control the Barnes. But the mastermind, the film posits, may have been Philadelphia billionaire and philanthropist Ray Perelman. But the film doesn’t completely connect these dots. This isn’t a bad thing, however, and other documentarians could learn something from it. The argument presented is not conclusively declaring a conspiracy and naming players. The film examines the roles of all those involved, and only points out that Dr. Barnes’ wishes clearly had not been honored. It plants enough seeds of doubt for you, the viewer, to ponder the ethics of what transpired. There is too much emphasis in America on being perceived right than actually getting your facts straight, yet here the director smartly presents what facts they do have and stops short of making tenuous accusations.

That tens of thousands of years of human and cultural progress could manifest itself in a work of art, only to be completely desecrated in less than a half-century by commoditization to the advantage of public and private power-brokers is the great tragedy.

The punchline to this travesty: The sign for the new Parkway gallery is unveiled, just behind a parking meter.

“The Barnes is the only sane place to see art in America.” – Henri Matisse

The Art of the Steal • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 • Running Time: 118 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

  • Craig Janke

    The Barnes collection was not at a site that could accomodate many viewers. It is being moved to a site that can. Is that a “great tragedy?”

    • Craig:

      How many people who line up to see paintings on a sterile, white wall, arranged by artist or period, are ever going to get a sense of the meaning of that art in context of culture as a whole? It seems we have become so inured to the bland, mass experience that we can’t even comprehend why it’s detrimental, let alone that it is.

      It seemed to Dr. Barnes that the market for art has clouded its intellectual value. I agree.

  • Craig Janke

    Barnes arrangement of paintings on the walls was quirky. Why would his arrangement of a few painters create a better cultural context than one in which a larger range of painters is displayed?

    Market value and intellectual value are always clouded. I see no evidence that Barnes had any more insight into this than anyone else. I don’t see why his stipulations should hamstring future adjustments to this balance.

    • Craig:

      I won’t debate your sense of aesthetics. What I think is relevant is that the mass experience is not what Barnes wanted. Why should he have better insight into this? Aside from the fact that his insight and tastes were ahead of their time, why does it matter? It was his investment, and his wishes. He wasn’t interested in the dilution of a mass experience, which many would agree runs at cross-purposes with a quality experience.

      Can it be sustained? Absolutely. For just over a century, the Wilsdorf Foundation has maintained a permanent charter under which it’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Rolex S.A., is never to be bought, sold, or put on a public exchange. After operating expenditures, most of their profit goes to funding scholarships. They don’t openly advertise this fact in their marketing, but what could possibly be the benefit of mass producing Rolex watches? Would it benefit those who want to study watchmaking? Would it benefit those who want to wear a well-assembled, mechanical timepiece? It might benefit a few executives and shareholders, and even that isn’t necessarily true. Operating margins for smaller companies quite often tend to be higher, when they focus on product experience rather than volume sales. There’s just less room in those scenarios for ludicrously excessive compensation packages for the top executives.

      I think the only mistake the Barnes Foundation made was in not taking up Glanton’s idea of releasing a handful of pieces to tour museums to help finance their educational institution, while retaining control of the collection and the foundation.

  • Craig Janke

    I am very uncomfortable with a collector making stipulations about an important collection of world art after his death and forever. Maybe the Rolex company has been a benefit to society, but that’s not always the case.

    Thanks for responding to me.

    • Craig:

      I think we run into trouble if we think of Barnes as manipulating ownership from beyond the grave. The Foundation is a way for Barnes guidance to be honored, while still making the art available to the public. The Louvre will probably never allow the Mona Lisa out of its sight. Even though six million people a year see it, millions more probably never will. So there are many levels to which we can take this argument: Why can’t we put it somewhere everyone will see it? You can’t. But again we’re getting a bit off the rails here.

      Also important is that this is not like Barnes’ sole desire was to lock up the paintings in a mansion for no one to see. There are art collectors who do this, and they are mostly self-interested and concerned with the market for art, rather than the work. In the case of the Barnes Foundation, the goal is a noble one, which Henri Matisse himself supported.