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04/09/2010

Where there's a will, but not a way

The best documentaries aim the sunlight of public exposure into the shadows of dirty dealings and deceit.

Say what you will about Michael Moore.  But by infusing humor and, yes, himself, into serious issues such as General Motors pulling out of his hometown, shady politics and health insurance, Moore has at least primed the pump of public thinking.

"The Art of the Steal," directed by Don Argott (who also serves as cinematographer), takes a straightforward, somber approach.  The rock overturned is a huge one, though; the long and vocal struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation art collection valued somewhere between $25-$30 billion.

Hardly posturing Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love, "The Art of the Steal" states a strong case in the other direction.  Dr. Albert Barnes made his fortune in pharmaceutical research after the turn of the 20th century.  By the 1920s he had turned his attention and considerable zeal to art collecting.

He also, according to the long list of the documentary interviewees, got crossways with Philadelphia politicians,  When he set up The Barnes Foundation, a world-class collection of Post-Impressionist and early modern art, it was five miles outside the Philadelphia city limits in Lower Merion.

It doesn't take long to grasp the idea that Barnes, who was married but had no children, also held the notion of art collections as tourist attractions in utter contempt.  His collection, arranged by theme in wall ensembles in intimate rooms, was intended -- and for decades sternly operated -- as an educational facility rather than a museum.

After his sudden death in 1951, "The Art of the Steal" contends, politicians and wealthy Philadelphia citizens began to conspire to get their hands on Barnes' collection of Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos, Van Goghs and other valuable pieces and set them up as a for-profit tourist attraction.    

That might be expected if someone with world-class riches on canvass died without a will.  Barnes, however, sought out the best attorneys he could find to include in his will the specific wishes that his collection never be moved, sold or loaned out.

Every city has its unique disputes.  So why should movie-goers concern themselves with a battle of wills literally and figuratively that played out (and continues) out of our region?

"The Art of the Steal" is superbly structured, for one thing.  Argott ("Rock School") pulls off an impressing list of interviews, although some key figures declined comment.   From former Barnes students, to outspoken art critics and politicians (including Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell), the clearly identified players state their views about what one of them calls "the greatest theft of art since the second world war."

If you appreciate good documentaries and especially if you love art, "The Art of the Steal" is a must-see.

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