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Money, power and culture collide in The Art of the Steal

Matisse called the Barnes Foundation "the only sane place to see art in America." But the clamor over moving one of the world's foremost collections of impressionist, post-impressionist and modern art from its home in the bucolic suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania, to center city Philadelphia (4.6 miles away) has been anything but reasonable. Unapologetically on the side of those who oppose the relocation (executive producer Lenny Feinberg is, like many of the doc's impassioned interlocutors, a former student of the Barnes Foundation), The Art of the Steal presents its aesthetes-versus-Phila-stines argument cogently, convincingly, and engagingly.

Though he relies too heavily on Philip Glass compositions to underscore dramatic points, director-cinematographer Don Argott (who helmed 2005's Rock School) digs deep to recount the struggle for control of this legendary institution. The foundation was started in 1922 by Dr. Alfred C. Barnes, a cranky physician from working-class Philly who made a fortune by developing an antiseptic, and used that money to amass his collection of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos and Modiglianis. Unabashedly liberal, Barnes loathed the conservative power elite of the City of Brotherly Love (which he called "a depressing intellectual slum"), particularly those affiliated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art; his foundation in Merion was strictly for art education, its magnificent pieces never to be loaned or to go on tour. Barnes, who died in 1951, explicitly stated in his will that the collection should never leave its two-story villa in the leafy suburbs — which, due to megalomania-fueled mismanagement beginning in the 1990s and the converging interests of philanthropic organizations, politicians and power brokers, is exactly what is scheduled to happen in 2012, when the Barnes Foundation will become a major tourist destination five blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"Culture has become big business," one of Steal's talking heads says early on, laying out the film's thesis. The refrain is echoed by arts reporter David D'Arcy sniffing about a "McBarnes in downtown Philadelphia" and Drexel professor Robert Zaller calling the move "the greatest theft of art since the Second World War." The key backers of the move declined to be interviewed in the film — with the notable exception of former Philadelphia mayor and current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who states that the relocation is necessary for populist reasons: It will make an invaluable collection more accessible to more people; more ticket-buyers, in turn, will restore the Barnes's depleted finances — a point that Barnes loyalists insist is a specious argument.

Argott's film makes clear that Rendell's statements are disingenuous at best — that moving the collection to the city represents the triumph of money and power not just over the express wishes of one man, but over the public's opportunity to have a singular experience with an astonishing array of art in its original setting. More cynically — and more to the point — the relocation signals the use of art to grease the wheels of commerce, crassly expressed when Philadelphia's then-mayor John Street announces at a press conference that moving the Barnes will have "the financial impact of three Super Bowls without the beer."

The Art of the Steal's thorough research, bolstered by many fiery talking heads, makes it one of the most successful advocacy docs in recent years and may prompt some firsthand investigating of your own. As for claims about the Barnes Foundation's inaccessibility — the linchpin of the argument for those supporting the move — visiting, as I discovered during a recent trip, requires not much more foresight than making a dinner reservation and not much more walking than it takes to get from the closest subway stop to the Met. Once inside, slowly drifting from room to room (five of the eighteen galleries are now closed in preparation for the move), Stendhal syndrome begins to set in; it seems almost inconceivable that so much beauty could be assembled in one small, intimate setting. On the second floor, as a docent was concluding a tour, I heard someone ask her why the Barnes was moving. After a pause, she answered, "There were money problems...," trailing off as if she herself were unconvinced of her response.

 
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