Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal is an activist documentary of an unusual kind. It’s unusual in that most activist documentaries are political in nature or address some social injustice—or both. The Art of the Steal, on the other hand, deals with the high-jacking of an art collection. To make it just a bit stranger, it’s an activist documentary about an event that appears to be a done deal. So what it hopes to accomplish, apart from righteous indignation, is a little vague. It is, in any case, an interesting yarn.
The film traces the fate of the art collection of pharmaceutical magnate and pioneering art collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who died in a car crash in 1951, leaving his collection to a museum of his own creation in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion. The works were to be there and nowhere else, and displayed as he wanted—there was a supposedly unbreakable will. Problem with that is that the collection involves 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis and seven van Goghs. The assessed value is, conservatively, $25 billion. That’s the kind of price tag that’s just made to have a will broken—especially when a government institution is involved. In this case, that would be the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which ironically, would not have considered the paintings worth bothering with when Barnes bought them.
It’s an interesting story—sometimes fascinating, sometimes maddening—but the film itself is a bit less so. That’s partly because Argott’s film is too much a straightforward documentary of the uninventive kind, but largely due to the fact that the film makes its “hero,” Dr. Barnes, less interesting than he really was by trying to make him “better” than he was. In the film, he all but seems to have a halo—despite a passing mention of misanthropy. In real life, Barnes was a thorny, curmudgeonly, argumentative and not entirely pleasant character.
I’d also have liked a little less deck-stacking. Since Barnes was a lifelong liberal Democrat, it seems likely that he would have despised Richard Nixon and Nixon’s friends. But since Barnes died in 1951, it seems unlikely he would have included chumminess with Nixon among the reasons he hated the Annenberg publishing family—his arch enemies in the art world—as the film suggests. Yes, the film is agenda-driven and it has a right to be, but there are limits.
Still, if the subject matter interests you, The Art of the Steal has an intriguing tale to tell. But don’t wait too long; it will only be in town through Thursday.