If ever confirmation was needed that the American legal system, as it pertains to non-criminal matters, is basically just a gamed system for moneyed interests to eventually win out, it arrives definitively in the form of The Art of the Steal, Don Argott’s absorbing documentary investigation into the decades-long tug-of-war over the late Albert Barnes’ $30 billion dollar art collection.
A self-made industrialist millionaire who rose from modest beginnings and amassed an array of post-impressionistic and early modern paintings at a time when such works were looked down upon by critics and art world movers and shakers, Barnes (above) so loved art that he created a suburban educational institution in Merion, Pennsylvania, based around his unparalleled, aesthetically presented collection of masterworks by the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse. And he so hated the art establishment and Philadelphia’s ruling journalistic elites, the Annenberg family, that he built into his will that the collection never be moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In a further poke to the eye of WASP-y privilege, Barnes even established a trust that eventually ceded control of the collection to Lincoln University, a small African-American college to which he had no ties. For decades his wishes endured, until a powerful cabal of political power players and wily charitable organizations took the matter to court, with an eye on the potential tourism boom that relocation to a new museum in Philadelphia would provide.
Tilted toward a loyal group of Barnes’ former students and colleagues, The Art of the Steal is a bit subjective, certainly, but always engrossing. Argott deftly highlights the fact that in America there very tangibly exists an industry of air-quote culture, which requires new product to fill its pipelines and thus cannot abide unexploited value. The film also reveals the truth that mainstream Hollywood movies almost always hide from us: it frequently isn’t just one villain screwing someone over, it takes a village. For more information on the movie, click here. (IFC Films, unrated, 101 minutes)