Film Review: Culture and ethics the stuff of riveting documentary in 'The Art of the Steal'

Renowned art collector Albert Barnes is shown inside the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation in this still from 'The Art of the Steal.'

Renowned art collector Albert Barnes is shown inside the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation in this still from "The Art of the Steal."

"The Art of the Steal" documents what one of the film's expert witnesses describes as "the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II."

Despite this promise of juicy criminality, the key word in the title is not "steal" but "art." The latter term suggests not just the film's focus on the art of the legendary Barnes Foundation — described as "the most important and valuable collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art in the world," valued at $30 billion — but the art of the moviemakers, who have delivered a model of documentary filmmaking and activist cinematic journalism. Directed by Don Argott and produced by Sheena M. Joyce, "The Art of the Steal" is unfailingly entertaining, expertly constructed and undeniably — perhaps justifiably — biased.

Renowned art collector Albert Barnes is shown inside the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation in this still from 'The Art of the Steal.'

Renowned art collector Albert Barnes is shown inside the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation in this still from "The Art of the Steal."

The movie chronicles what might be described as the hostile takeover of the Barnes collection by a "cabal" of Philadelphia politicians, foundation officials, trust administrators and others, who — apparently motivated by the collection's merchandising and tourism potential — used their influence to push aside the wishes of the late millionaire art collector Albert C. Barnes, whose will stipulated that his art remain within its distinctive and relatively small Lower Merion, Pa., museum home.

An irascible New Deal eccentric with a keen eye (he was an early North American collector of Matisse and Picasso), Barnes disdained the Philadelphia Museum of Art (located about four miles from his Foundation) as "a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution. ... The main function of the museum has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts." No wonder his supporters and admirers were incensed when a court ruled that the Barnes collection could be moved to the Philadelphia institution.

The film turns this legal and ethical brouhaha into the stuff of high suspense, while also opening up many topics for debate: Should great works of art be made available for viewing by as many people as possible, or protected for smaller, more appreciative audiences? Should a dying man's wishes be sacrosanct? Is the union between "culture" and "big business" detrimental to art? Do greedy motives corrupt positive accomplishments?

In arguing for the underdog (if you can refer to the spirit of a man who amassed billions in art as an "underdog"), the movie sometimes strikes an elitist pose. "Philistine!" one Barnes supporter shouts at a well-heeled Philadelphia Museum of Art patron, during a protest outside a fundraising party. The moment is somewhat shocking because this shouter already has appeared on camera numerous times, as one of the movie's calm, articulate talking heads. (Budding nonfiction filmmakers should study the way Argott finds interesting ways to shoot these interviews, as when he frames one art expert alongside what appears to be the man's proud collection of vintage clothes irons. He also eschews the post-Ken Burns fascination with digital trickery when reproducing black-and-white stills and other found visual materials.)

"The Art of the Steal" is playing exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

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