‘The Art of the Steal’

Film Critic

If there is such a thing as karma, the spirit of Dr. Albert C. Barnes is wrestling with it big time.

While he was alive, the man often referred to as The Terrible Tempered Dr. Barnes inspired a thesaurus of unhappy adjectives: vitriolic, autocratic, vindictive, acrimonious, irascible, cantankerous, unscrupulous and more. He acquired what might be the 20th century’s greatest private art collection and then delighted in preventing people from seeing it. Even Jesus Christ, he supposedly said, wouldn’t be given the privilege of regular admittance.

Barnes died after he was broadsided by a trailer truck in 1951 at age 79 as he drove his car through a stop sign, reportedly at 110 mph, and if he wasn’t already dead he would die all over again at the knowledge of what is happening to his beloved collection.

As detailed in the energetically entertaining if a bit one-sided documentary “The Art of the Steal,” the Philadelphia civic establishment that Barnes held beneath contempt for mocking his collection before his art became popular has had its posthumous revenge, engineering a move from its iconic home in suburban Merion, Pa., to a proposed new museum in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. It’s a move that illustrates as few other things how art and culture have become commodified into big money industries.

The first thing you need to know about the collection are its staggering numbers: That suburban building houses 181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, more Cezannes (69) than are in the museums of Paris, and on and on and on. Initially advised by the American artist William Glackens, a friend from high school, Barnes began buying this art when no one else was interested and so earned the loyalty of his artists that Matisse came over in 1933 to paint a 42-foot mural called “La Dance” above the structure’s tall French windows. Total value of the collection, to quote “Citizen Kane”: “No man can say.”

But once you’ve visited the Barnes, intended by the collector to be part of a school that taught his arcane notions of art, you understand that numbers are not the point. To see all this celebrated art in this unique setting -- hung gallery-style without titles next to paintings by lesser known folks as well as examples from Barnes’ extensive collection of door ornaments -- is frankly staggering, and the notion of moving it to Philadelphia sounds like the equivalent of moving the Grand Canyon to a site in Manhattan to take advantage of the tourist trade.

Even if you believe that the art should stay where it is, it’s hard not to wish that director Don Argott had made the film somewhat more balanced. The film downplays Barnes’ irascibility, the eccentricity of his theories, even the patent medicine nature of Argyrol, the substance that made his fortune. And it could have tried harder to balance the film’s numerous former Barnes students by finding intelligent voices on the other side, for instance the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith who wrote a piece headlined “Does It Matter Where This Painting Hangs?”

But no matter what side you’re on, you’re likely to be flabbergasted as “The Art of the Steal” details the twists and turns of chicanery and fate that brought his art to the pass it’s at today.

After Barnes’ death and the death of his key disciple, control went, as the socially progressive Barnes willed it, to Lincoln University, a distinguished African American institution. (Civil rights leader Julian Bond, whose father was Lincoln University’s president, is one of the film’s most unexpected and articulate voices.)

Also fascinating for the opposite reason is Richard Glanton, who through his Lincoln connections gained control of the collection and sent it out on a worldwide tour, complete with merchandising, that would have devastated Barnes, who believed that reproductions were like “a hearsay version of a honeymoon narrated by an octogenarian.”

Most absorbing is the chain of events that led key Philadelphia foundations to opt, for reasons of their own, not to help the Barnes stay where it was but instead to move it to a place where it could help the city’s tourism. The Albert C. Barnes who felt his gallery was “no place for the rabble” would not have been pleased. Not pleased at all.