The thought of trudging through The Art of the Steal was worrisome. As someone who rarely gets more than five hours of sleep at a time, it’s all too easy to fall prey to exhaustion when I’m comfortably sitting in a dark, empty theater. Listening to talking heads wax poetic on the importance of an art collection, my head starts to bob, my eyelids flutter, my breathing goes on autopilot, and before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep.
The film is more enthralling thriller than dry documentary. My eyes were wide open for the duration.
As a piece of entertainment, it excels; the trade-off is that the filmmakers’ objectivity becomes suspect. The music, the editing, the big reveals and twists and turns, even the title—they all point towards an agenda-driven, streamlined film about a complex subject: the battle over the future of the Barnes Foundation, home to one of the world’s most important private art collections.
I spoke to Rand Suffolk, Director of the Philbrook Museum of Art, and he confirmed the film’s biased nature.
“The movie, in a very compelling way, was an exceptional piece of propaganda,” he told me. “I don’t say that necessarily to be pejorative. But there are two sides to every story, and this documentary chose to focus almost fully on articulating one side of the story.”
Albert Barnes made clear that his monumental collection of post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings—Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Cezanne, among others—never leave their Merion, Pennsylvania estate.
Suffolk has seen the collection up close.
“It really is almost overwhelming… There’s so much that’s so wonderful, at the end of the day you’re exhausted from having experienced it.”
As the 20th Century wore on, Barnes passed away, and a decades-long battle over the collection commenced. The film chronicles the conflict between the Barnes Foundation and multiple competing interests, which seems to include half of Philadelphia— the politicians, the local media, even the renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art. Barnes was at odds with the city’s wealthy elite, and the film asserts that this ongoing feud is what’s fueled the city’s success at acquiring the collection, something Barnes forbade in his will.
“In a perfect world, the Barnes Foundation should probably stay where it is. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world. And there are incredible challenges and complexities to its current situation,” said Suffolk.
The word “conspiracy” is uttered multiple times throughout the film, mostly by art critics, teachers and ex-students of the Barnes Foundation. Suffolk believes this to be non-sense.
“I don’t think there was a grand conspiracy to steal something from the town of Merion,” he said. “Number one, the board of trustees at the Barnes Foundation ultimately made the decision. You can’t steal something that is already yours. They own it, they’re charged with the responsibility of taking care of it, they have documents (drawn up by Barnes himself) which allows for the fact that it might be moved, and they made what many would deem an unpopular decision.”
The portrayal of Philadelphia is unflattering, and familiar. The film posits that the city was motivated largely by greed, but also by a desire to up its cultural equity. The politicians speak of the collection as a commodity; it brings tourist dollars, as well as a reputation that will guarantee every art lover in the world makes a stop in Philly a priority.
One of the film’s striking moments finds David D’Arcy of The Art Newspaper chiding Philadelphia: “A city that has any sense of its own identity doesn’t talk about becoming a world class city, it just is what it is. This is the world class (version) of cheerleading, of pep rallies, of building a new baseball stadium or a convention center. That’s not what art is about.”
This assessment begs comparison to our own lovely city. After all, we recently built a new baseball stadium, as well as a convention center. We have a committee hellbent on bidding Tulsa as the hosting city for the 2020 Olympics. And our foremost art institution, Philbrook, recently acquired a renowned private collection of its own—The Eugene B. Adkins collection of Native American and Southwestern Art.
I asked Suffolk to share his thoughts on these parallels.
“When we had an opportunity to acquire the Adkins collection, one of the finest collections of its kind left in private hands, we talked about the fact that its important to keep this material here, it’s important for Tulsa. We were competing for this against the Denver Art Museum, the Phoenix Museum of Art, Tucson, half a dozen places… That kind of thought process certainly happened to some degree with Philadelphia. ‘Keep it here, let’s enhance it.’ Is it going to be good for Philadelphia? Hell, yes. But is that a crime?”
Suffolk stressed the weight associated with the responsibility of taking care of such an important collection.
“It’s not always easy to be the stewards of a collection like that. Even at Philbrook, people are constantly struggling to do what’s right for both the organization and the community.”
Photo: Philbrook Museum by White Rabbit Art