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Movie Review: The Art of the Steal

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A small African American college becomes the beneficiary of a rich man’s will, but evil forces—political and social and even petty personal—converge to take away a multi-million dollar art collection from the small college, destroy an educational institute connected with the foundation the rich man built while dismantling probate law in the state of Pennsylvania. That’s the gist of the 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal.

The movie isn’t just about politics in an Eastern city. USC was the beneficiary of Walter Annenberg, whose donations helped establish the Annenberg School of Communication from which I received my master’s degree in print journalism. Annenberg’s father was at the center of a tax evasion scandal and when rich men fight, their money talks. Annenberg was the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and he held a personal grudge against Albert C. Barnes, the man who set up the Barnes Foundation and left it to the first degree-granting historically black Lincoln University in Merion, Pennsylvania.

A self-made millionaire, Barnes was scorned by the Philadelphia establishment for his questionable taste (“horrible, debased art”) during a public showing of his collection, but as tastes changed, people began to want access to his remarkable collection of post-impressionist art which includes Pierre-Auguste Renoir (181), Paul Cezanne (69), Henri Matisse (59), George de Chirico, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean Hugo, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Maurice Utrillo, Vincent Van Gogh, Maurice Prendergast, and a variety of African artworks.

Barnes, who died suddenly in 1951, meant his foundation to be a school for the study of art and his will expressly forbid the lending of works, touring or selling. The public was allowed admission to the collection twice a week.

Barnes had taken great care with his will, knowing what had happened to the John G. Johnson Collection despite the stipulation of the 1917 will codicil that the city maintain the collection in Johnson’s South Broad Street home. In 1933, the entire collection was transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and by 1989, the museum integrated the galleries of the Johnson collection with the museum’s own holdings.

With Annenberg using his newspaper, politicians and supposedly non-profit organizations fought for this $25 billion collection using legal and bureaucratic reasons that this documentary refutes. Along the way, a judge was fooled, the terms of Barnes’ will—written by the best lawyers of his day—was slowly dismantled and Philadelphia looked to fill its city coffers with the potential tourist dollars that could have gone to Lincoln U.

Yet the effect on the art world goes beyond Philadelphia. Christopher Knight, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times and not the Brady Bunch actor, was filmed for commentary because this is a major shakeup in the art world. Moreover, imagine Los Angeles without the J. Paul Getty Villa museum and educational center in Pacific Palisades or the Virginia Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills. Both have limited parking, one of the problems cited for the Barnes Collection move. Imagine Pasadena without the Huntington Library and Gardens or the Gamble House. Anyone who has been to the Gamble House, managed by USC and the city of Pasadena, knows that unique houses and their collections can be priceless treasures for a community that cares. The documentary makes it very clear that the building itself and the very arrangement of the pieces were part of the Barnes educational experience that might be lost if the final move scheduled to be completed in 2012 isn’t stopped.

Despite his actions, Annenberg apparently didn’t believe in helping the Philadelphia Museum of Art or in the imperative needs of the city over the individual donor’s wishes. After Annenberg’s 2003 death, his art collection went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Like Barnes, his will also stipulated that the paintings not be loaned, sold or travel.

Perhaps Annenberg didn’t believe that his will could be broken or that at least the Met’s and NYC’s lawyers were more powerful than anyone else’s. Yet if the Barnes Foundation and Barnes’ will is totally dismantled, the future implications is that small cities like Pasadena or Merion, or small colleges or universities like Lincoln or the East Los Angeles College (which received 90 pieces from Vincent Price in 1951) will be bypassed in favor of bigger cities and institutions by donors who are aware of this sad history of the Barnes Collection.

Directed by Don Argott, The Art of the Steal is an important documentary that raises questions important to donors, lawyers, and anyone interested in the preservation of the arts and rights of small cities and colleges worldwide.

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