Film Review: The Art of the Steal
However unfortunate and sad this documentary revealed to be, I think it was really well made and organized. The intro was a bit confusing, just because the summarizing clips of the various interviews of those involved were so brief and intense, that I was lost in what they were all talking about. For the first half hour of the film, I was waiting for the story to change from Dr. Barnes and the Barnes Foundation to something else, until I finally realized that this was the main subject of the film. Perhaps that was my own problem, not having looked into what the film was about before-hand.
The Barnes Foundation was a fascinating institution, and for a short while, I was approaching the Barnes’ implementation of art through education from the commercial/gallery perspective, and was faintly appalled. It finally clicked; the commercial/gallery perspective, as well as museum’s practices, had a new-found tinge of greed and bottom line finances that I had definitely been aware of previously, however not to the degree that I was now seeing it. I think this is due to the fact that I had never been aware of and witnessed an example of the opposite of a museum or commercially run gallery institution. This contrast was exciting and eye-opening to me about the entire concept of showing art to the public versus educating viewers about the work. I really respected Dr. Barnes’ overwhelming dedication to educating the art that was considered more or less contemporary to the students had taught in his classes. His defiance of the loaning or selling of any of his own private collection was something that as a human inter-connected society, they could not take without being offended. The natural inclination to be told off for your beliefs and/or practices, such as being a museum curator or an auctioneer, would definitely damage someone’s sense of what is normal, but also be taken personally. The reactions that stewed between the art world in Philadelphia and the Barnes, was just a case in point of a pure opposite purpose, and communication and judgments of both parties were not taken with respect at all. Unfortunately, the need to survive always surfaces. Had Dr. Barnes never run out of money, the issues may not have arisen as soon as they did.
The issues most definitely lied in the lack of planning for the chain of command following Barnes’ passing. His successor, Viollete de Mazia, did put in all the effort she could have, but the transfer of authority to Lincoln University was a poorly planned maneuver. I never did understand why Barnes did not consider his own students as potential successors to the institution. Who better to understand it’s legacy and purpose? I feel that had that happened, the entire thing would be different, and most likely better off.
I was stunned at how many lawsuits surrounded the Barnes Foundation. It was very frustrating to witness the Presidential changes and the slow but steady additions to the seats of the trustees. The dramatic scratching off of the points Barnes left in his will to the Foundation was very upsetting. The film did an excellent job at perceiving the art world of Philadelphia and all of those who were politically involved as sly crooks.
I would like to see more institutions like this in the future, however the odds of someone such as Alfred Barnes, being ready to invest in the best art for the near future and beyond is a rare circumstance that I think may take many more attempts before something of this magnitude and potential shows up. When something like this comes into existence again, which it will, those who run it will have hopefully done their homework to be prepared for self-sustaining principles and line of authority to stay within a trusted lineation. I don’t know if the Barnes Foundation has much hope to return to the original values, at least not any time soon, considering the “vultures” have already captured it in Philadelphia.