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The Art of the Steal

Not rated, 101 min. Directed by Don Argott.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 16, 2010

Don Argott's endlessly engrossing documentary makes no bones about where its allegiances lie. The Art of the Steal bills itself, after all, as "the true story of a multi-billion dollar heist and how they got away with it." It tracks the decades-long pursuit of the most impressive and coveted private art collection in the world, that of Philadelphia resident Albert Barnes, who caught on to Post-Impressionism long before the general public, or even the art establishment, did. The press branded an early showing of Barnes' collection – which featured scores of Matisses, Picassos, and Cézannes, among many other now-essential names – as "primitive art"; it was a slight Barnes never forgot. Nor did the working-class-born Barnes have any patience for Philadelphia swells, who treated art as accessory and support of the arts as a backdrop for social activity; he once called the Philadelphia Museum of Art a "house of artistic and intellectual prostitution." In short, he was no fan of Philly, which is why he very pointedly set up the permanent home for his collection, the Barnes Foundation, five miles from downtown Philadelphia in the township of Lower Merion. There, he established the foundation as an educational program, not a museum (which limited access hours to the general public). Fearing encroachment from his sworn enemies, Barnes set up a trust that explicitly stated that upon his death, no piece in the collection could be sold, loaned, or moved; upon his death, that's exactly what certain Philadelphia power players (including the mayor, governor, and the Annenberg Foundation, among others) have been trying to do, culminating in a $200 million bid to move the foundation from its historic building in Merion to new digs in downtown Philadelphia. Argott relies on extensive interviews with both sides of the war over the future of the foundation – and you'd better believe it's a war, though surely the only one that involves protesters screaming "philistines!" through a barbed-wire fence. Argott begins the film with a doomsday piano cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," which at first feels a mite melodramatic, but after Argott's emphatic detailing of so many dirty dealings, the end does indeed feel nigh. That's to be expected; like I said, the film's slant is spelled out in its tagline. Still, there's an implicit sort of sniffing attitude about the "right" kind of art enthusiast versus the "wrong" kind – the out-of-towner, perhaps, who can scratch off two hours in a museum on his list of things to do while in Philadelphia. But two hours in the Barnes may be exactly what that "wrong" kind of art enthusiast requires for a transformative experience. While The Art of the Steal makes a very convincing – even bone-chilling – argument that the people and foundations that essentially hijacked the Barnes Foundation are primarily concerned with tourist dollars and not the preservation of Barnes' legacy, the film fails to even ponder why easier access to some of the world's greatest art treasures might not be an entirely bad thing.
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