Currently Viewing: The Art of the Steal

914 Pictures, IFC Films

I’m afraid that this documentary is the ultimate cautionary tale for collectors.  It concerns the Barnes Foundation, the Post-Impressionist art collection of Dr. Albert Barnes.  Barnes began collecting art in 1912, and within a year he had amassed twelve Picassos, twenty Renoirs and twelve Cezannes.  And this was just the beginning.  He continued to collect into the 1920s.

In the early 1920s he exhibited 75 works at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.  He had anticipated that many viewers and critics would misunderstand the paintings, so he wrote an introduction to the works, advising how the art should be viewed.  But it was of no avail; the exhibit was lambasted as morbid and ugly.  This criticism was the beginning of Dr. Barnes limiting access to his collection, and of his hatred of what he considered to be the art establishment.

So he designed his own museum, though it is not a museum in the standard use of the word.  Barnes began studying under educator John Dewey, and he developed an educational program in which potential students applied to go to the Barnes Foundation in order to study his system of viewing art.  In this manner Barnes limited access to the collection, letting in only those he thought would be receptive to his ideas.  After his death in 1951 this system continued under the director of the foundation, his protegee, Violette de Mazia.

Barnes hoped that the art establishment, and in particular, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would never get its hands on his collection.  He was especially careful in drawing up his will because he had seen how the collection of a friend had been acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in less than ideal circumstances.  So he hired lawyers to draw up what he thought was an ironclad will.  Basically it stated that the Barnes Foundation collection could never be sold or altered in any way, and that any part of it could never be loaned.   It was to remain an educational institution with admission limited to the students.

Because of Barnes’ relationship with its president, Lincoln University was given a role in the running of the foundation after Barnes’ death.  Ms. de Mazia ran the foundation until she died in the 1980s.  At first all remained the same, but soon the new board of directors had plans to open the building to visitors and to send the paintings on a tour.  And that is exactly what happened.

But the story does not end there, because now there are plans to move the entire collection to a new building in downtown Philadelphia.  Despite the will, an entire cast of characters had a hand in the total disregard of Dr. Barnes’ wishes for his collection.  And yes it did end up in court.  All I can say is that anyone who still believes that our judicial system is not driven by politics and greed has not taken a good look at how powerful and seeming capricious the system is.

So can one protect a collection after he or she is gone?  The answer, I’m pretty sure is no, they cannot.  The breaking apart of several museum costume collections in recent years goes to show that even donating to an established institution does not guarantee perpetuity.  Maybe we should be more like Elizabeth Taylor, who saw herself not as the owner of her fabulous jewels, but rather, as their caretaker.

“I’m fortunate to have some very important pieces of jewelry. I don’t believe I own any of the pieces. I believe that I am their custodian, here to enjoy them, to give them the best treatment in the world, to watch after their safety, and to love them.”  Elizabeth Taylor, 2002

Click the film poster image above to see the film’s trailer.  The Art of the Steal is available on Netflix.

1 Comment

Filed under Currently Viewing

One response to “Currently Viewing: The Art of the Steal

  1. This is a great commentary. Having seen the movie, I agree with you about the parallel we have with the many museum costume collections that have gone amiss in recent years. At one time I thought I would donate my own tiny collection to a suitable educational archive, but now that seems so naive.


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