In Plain Sight: "The Art of the Steal" chronicles the last days of a great museum

On Sunday, Aug. 20, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was, as usual, hanging on a wall in the Louvre in Paris, France. By Monday morning, it was gone, although it was not until noon on Tuesday that anyone noticed it was missing. It was a monumental heist, occurring in broad daylight: The thief simply removed the portrait from the wall and walked out. The case confounded the museum and police for two years until, finally, the painting was found when Vincenzo Perugia attempted to sell it. Perugia, an Italian craftsman, had been hired to create the protective box around the painting. In other words, he was the person entrusted with keeping it safe.

The theft is one of the art world’s most famous crimes, but hardly compares to the events of the last ten years at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa. At least, that’s what documentary filmmaker Don Argott would have us believe. Argott’s new film, The Art of the Steal, chronicles the story of how what many consider the world’s greatest collection of French early modern and post-impressionist art was moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the city center, against the last wishes of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the collection’s original owner. In his will, Barnes mandated that his foundation, created in 1922, remain focused on education, refrain from loaning or selling the art, and preserve its democratic nature. His motivation was one part love of art and one part hatred for the elite art world that scorned him.


Barnes grew up in a working-class family in Philadelphia, studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and made his money in pharmaceuticals. He possessed a distinct progressive streak, and his taste in art formed quickly. Barnes developed a particular interest in the kind of work the art establishment saw as lacking in value and accessibility, for example works by Henri Matisse.

In 1923 Barnes held the first exhibition of his collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Critics savaged it, calling it among other things “most unpleasant” and “nasty.” Matisse, however, felt differently, later calling Barnes’ museum “the only sane place to see art in America.” Over time Barnes amassed an astounding collection, including 181 works by Renoir, 46 by Picasso, 59 by Matisse, and 69 by Cezanne, most of which were rarely available for public viewing.

A New-deal Democrat, Barnes took the criticism of the art world personally and insisted the paintings be made available mainly to those taking classes at the foundation, with occasional outside visitors. He felt a need to “attack the enemies of intelligence and imagination in art, whether or not those enemies are protected by financial power or social prestige.” A man whose taste in art seems rivaled only by his ability to hold a grudge, Barnes was known to turn away requests by New York art critics to visit the foundation, while welcoming a New York plumber. 

In the meantime, the art world and the world at large began to realize what a stunning collection Barnes had amassed in his entirely unique Merion, Pa., museum.

A Vision Shattered

Slowly, over the last decade, Barnes’ will has been picked apart and nearly all of his requests have been reinterpreted or ignored. Argott presents the impending move to Center City Philadelphia as a theft and a product of conspiracy. For those who agree, it is one of almost unimaginable scale—the collection is valued at about $25 billion—and almost as blatant as Perugia’s stroll through the Louvre. One difference is that, in the case of the Barnes, people noticed. They objected. They were overruled.

It is these individuals, including a mix of art dealers, board members, and writers such as author John Anderson and art critic Christopher Knight, that make up the majority of people interviewed in the film. They argue that too many people, under the guise of protecting and preserving art, have used the Barnes to further their own agendas, destroying the collector’s vision in the process.

The film also includes interviews with supporters of the move, such as Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who believe that the works of art will be better preserved and more accessible at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yet the film lacks a sufficient number of opposing voices to offer a truly balanced perspective. (Several supporters of the move refused to take part in the film.)

The film’s opening scene depicts Philadelphia’s Mayor John Street at a press conference in 2007, speaking enthusiastically about the Barnes collection: “You won’t be able to see it anywhere else,” he says. “If you want to see it, you come to Philadelphia.” His words were echoed by other politicians, who focused on the potential increase in tourism revenue for the city.

But it is this way of thinking that causes concern for many of the film’s commentators. Great art, they fear, has become nothing more than a product. Barnes, one critic argues, was “not interested in a mass experience, but a quality experience.” The great collector meticulously chose the location of each item, purposefully arranging, for example, a Cezanne, an antique door lock and furniture in the same room.

The interviews are mostly patched together with bits of archival footage of Barnes, still photos and establishing shots. At times Argott relies too heavily on close ups of newspaper clippings and old headlines. Mundane shots of downtown Philadelphia grow repetitive, and I found myself longing for a greater variety of images from within the Barnes museum.
The film’s greatest success comes in helping to make clear the true depth of the controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation—which included mobs of tourists, angry neighbors, frivolous lawsuits, city and state politics and questionable moves from charitable organizations—and the stakes held by many who fought to ensure their side met with success.

“The Art of the Steal” presents a convincing case to preserve the Barnes, but, in the end it is not Argott’s proof but the questions posed by the film that are most powerful. The final decision of the courts to move the Barnes collection forces us to reconsider the certainty of our own perceived legacies. As one protestor called out to the glitterati at a fundraiser to support the Barnes move: “Wait ‘til it’s your will!” We prepare so carefully for death and yet, the film is a reminder that, when the time comes, the execution of our wishes is beyond our control, left to be interpreted by those who remain. 

The Barnes Experience

Another question the film raises is an enduring and seemingly unanswerable one: What is art? It’s hard to believe Barnes’ saw his collection as simply a selection of static images or inanimate objects. For Barnes, the juxtaposition of the pieces enabled each item to become more alive—and the viewer as well. The beauty of the Barnes is in the experience. The museum itself is a work of art, a symphonic experience rather than a cacophonous one, culminating in an artistic understanding that cannot be recreated anywhere else, much less in the larger, less intimate setting of the Philadelphia art museum. For those who agree, disassembling the Barnes, then, is no less destructive than tearing a hole in the “Mona Lisa.”

Barnes on the Parkway, as the new location is called, will allow four times more visitors and easier access for buses and cars. Its economic impact on the city of Philadelphia is the equivalent of hosting three Superbowls, without the beer. But it also comes at a cost.

Some of the final shots are effective in creating a contrast between the old experience and the new. Billboards near the side of the parkway depict images of the works of art that will soon make their way to the city center. But they are simply pale reproductions, advertisements meant to entice the viewer into the world that Dr. Barnes imagined, created and preserved. One that will soon no longer exist.

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