A Firefight in Fine Art: ‘Art of the Steal’ at IFC

Once a piece of an artists’ work is purchased by a collector, an admirer, or even their mother, it’s up to their discretion as to how it’s viewed or stored. But after the collector has passed, what becomes of the art?

In In the News Main Article 3 Reviews by Amanda Scigaj 2010-03-23 print

Image via RottenTomatoes.comIn light of the recent flurry of the Armory Show and it’s monosyllabic counterparts, art as equity is a topic resurfaced. Once a piece of an artists’ work is purchased by a collector, an admirer, or even their mother, it’s up to their discretion as to how it’s viewed or stored. But after the collector has passed, what becomes of the art? When something of value, particularly if it has a cultural, and ultimately fiscal importance, can the public override their wishes and generate a cash cow? These are the questions raised and outraged by the new film The Art of the Steal, released by 9.14 Films.

The documentary centers around Dr. Albert Barnes, the man and his collection that he left behind equipped with an iron-clad will. Barnes, who came up out of a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia to become a doctor, accumulated his fortune primarily from the invention of Argyrol, an antiseptic often used to treat gonorrhea in the first half of the Twentieth Century. With his sums of money Barnes bought scores of post-impressionist and modern art; numbers of work by Matisse, Monet, Picasso and Renoir were apart of his collection, which is currently estimated at over 25 billion dollars.

The hundred-plus minutes detail the storied legal battle over the Barnes collection through a lens of conspiracy and legal trickery. Throughout his life, Dr. Barnes was notoriously cantankerous, especially towards Philadelphia’s elite, partially due to the only instance that Dr. Barnes chose to exhibit part of his collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1923. Consisting of 75 paintings including Renoir, Picasso, Kisling, and Matisse, critics panned it across the board, deeming most of the work unsuitable for the viewing public. Decades later, these same people (and their successors) were denigrating him for shutting them out of it, by tucking it away at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA, five miles outside of the city. Incensed by his distaste for the elite, Barnes constructed a trust for his collection that left it in the hands of Lincoln University, a small black liberal college, with the stipulation that the collection never be loaned, sold, or moved. Posthumously, political leaders and bureaucrats eroded at Barnes’ will to the point of arguing that the trust was bankrupt, and for the entire collection to be moved on Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

Admittedly it’s detailed from the perspective of team Barnes; with emphasis on the collection as a sacred teaching tool set in a bucolic arboretum, a place that Matisse once said is “the only sane place to see art in America,” the entire saga is billed as the ultimate heist of the art world perpetrated by the greedy city fathers. Conversely, these city fathers argue that the foundation cannot maintain itself on their current financial status, and the public deserves to see such works, while skirting the issue of its potential as a major revenue stream for the city. The question is raised; is this opening up opportunity for the general public to see priceless works, or the McDonaldization of contemporary art, where viewing itself is not an experience, but rather a drive through on the way to the gift shop?

The Art of the Steal is now playing at the IFC Center http://www.ifccenter.com/films/the-art-of-the-steal/

Amanda Scigaj

Amanda Scigaj. Amanda Scigaj grew up in Buffalo, New York certain that football ruined her childhood. Since moving to Brooklyn in 2007 she helped build DIY venue Bodega, ran art shows, and became music editor for libertine publication Chief Magazine. She currently splits her time between the production department of a publishing company, and as a freelance writer. In her free time she likes to record hunt, learn random factual information, and is really trying to finish that Robert Moses biography. » See other writings


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