The Art of the Steal
An eye-opening introduction to art crimes
The Art of the Steal
Directed by Don Argott
Ever entertain ideas of participating in some multimillion-dollar art museum heist? Who hasn’t? But how would one go about accomplishing such a task outside the confines of a swingin’ ’60s French crime film? Well, if you’re curious, The Art of the Steal details exactly how that sort of crime is accomplished in the real world. Sadly, it doesn’t involve leather catsuits, handheld suction cups, laser security systems, smoke grenades or sexy sidekicks. It just takes a handful of politicians, a bunch of lawyers and a whole lot of paperwork.
The Art of the Steal is a sober, spellbinding documentary from director Don Argott (who gave us 2005’s Rock School). With a minimum of fuss, the film initiates us into the world of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. A self-made man, strong believer in democratic principles and lifelong patron of the arts, Barnes spent most of the first half of the 20th century collecting Post-Impressionist and early Modern art. His massive collection includes seminal works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh ... the list goes on.
Prominent newspaper critics at the time called the few public exhibitions of the collection “primitive,” “debased” and “nasty.” Barnes, ever the iconoclast, said: Fuck ’em. He housed his growing collection in a specially constructed mansion in Lower Merion Township, a suburb of Philadelphia, and founded a private, world-renowned educational institution dedicated to the study of art. Matisse himself dubbed it “the only sane place in America to view art.”
The amazing thing about Barnes’ collection is not simply that it grew to become the envy of every art museum in the world, but that it was in private hands—displayed in an intimate setting that rejected clinical, institutional ideas about fine art. Barnes hung his works not by period or by artist, but by aesthetic connection. Often, they were displayed alongside nontraditional items like furniture or door handles or metalwork hinges that Barnes simply found pleasing. That, said the cultural elitists, is not the way it’s done.
Barnes’ greatest strength—and his ultimate undoing, as it turns out—was his impeccable taste. Time proved him right. Today, the worth of the collection is nearly incalculable. Pressed for an estimate, speculators appraise many of the more than 2,500 objects in the collection at around 500 million dollars. That’s more than any individual or institution could afford. And that’s for one item, mind you. Estimates on the entire collection put it somewhere north of $25 billion. With a B. Needless to say, over the years, a lot of people have wanted to get their hands on Barnes’ stuff.
Argott’s documentary charts the creation of Barnes’ mind-boggling collection, as well as the army of enemies he amassed. Opinionated, irascible and determined, Barnes pissed off a lot of people in power. Fortunately, he had plenty of money and power himself. But he wasn’t gonna live forever. In order to preserve his beloved institution, Barnes set out detailed terms of a trust to be honored in perpetuity after his death. Chief among Barnes’ concerns: His art could never be loaned, it could never be removed from the walls of the foundation and it could never be exploited for commercial gain. Since Barnes’ death in 1951, art has become big business. Huge business, actually. And the pressure to dismantle Barnes’ foundation has been massive.
With quiet anger, The Art of the Steal explains how the city of Philadelphia (and others) decided to disregard the tenets of Barnes’ will and cart all his possessions off to a brand new, highly institutional art museum—the exact sort of thing Barnes detested. There, they can parade millions of yokels a day past the paintings for 25 bucks (or more) a pop. Is this art or commerce?
Perhaps the most defining skill of a documentary is its editing, and the editing on The Art of the Steal is whip-smart. Interviews are stitched together for maximum emotional impact. This isn’t just another lineup of talking heads, but a collection of people with passion and insight—many of whom were disciples of Dr. Barnes himself and clearly benefitted from his educational ideals. The film is shot with just enough style to excite, but not distract. When an old home movie of Barnes is introduced, a movie projector clatters to life, swinging its lens into the audience’s eye. Old documents are accompanied by the tak-tak-tak of a vintage typewriter. Historical photographs and newspaper articles aren’t simply shoved in front of the camera, but pop off the curling pages of an old scrapbook. Touches like this give the film an intimate, handmade look—something Barnes himself would have appreciated.
The film spends a lot of time dissecting Barnes’ will and chronicling the behind-the-scenes skullduggery it took to dismiss the document. Despite its specificity, The Art of the Steal has a lot to say about today’s corporatization of art. Does snatching paintings out of private hands and installing them on institutional walls actually democratize art, or does that reduce them to just another commodity? Like the late Dr. Barnes, it’s clear on which side The Art of the Steal comes down.