Movie Review: "The Art of the Steal"

June 28, 2012

Abstract: Decent documentary film, whose value is more in raising questions about the ethics of access to art than in telling the story of the victimized Barnes Foundation.

The Barnes Foundation opened its new museum in Philadelphia this year despite the years of legal battles described in this 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal. The movie left me feeling soundly depressed about the state of the fine arts in this country, but also feeling caught in the middle of a bigger argument. That argument is about the proper place of elitism in art. But first, to summarize briefly the history of the Barnes Foundation: Assembled by a wealthy industrialist, the Barnes art collection is considered to be the best collection of impressionist and early modern paintings anywhere, and valued at $25 billion. This man, Albert Barnes, established an art school based on this collection, and endowed the school (the Barnes Foundation) to remain as an educational institution in perpetuity, with the paintings never to be moved, sold, lent, reproduced, etc. He built the Foundation’s building in a town outside of Philadelphia, where he expected his collection to remain forever, with limited public access, to serve its primary purpose as a teaching institution. The documentary argues that he did this not just because he wanted to teach people about art, but because he specifically didn’t want his collection to become part of the Philadelphia art scene (the Philadelphia Museum of Art in particular) and because he opposed both the commercialization of art and its use as expensive “wallpaper” for powerful people. After his death and the death of his appointed trustees, through a series of legal maneuvers, his will was superseded, resulting in the touring of the collection abroad and finally its transfer to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, which opened this year. The film argues that this was done through the conspiracy of a number of public figures and charitable groups who stood to benefit from the transfer of the art (either financially or by gaining power), and through wilfully misleading and lying to the county judge who approved the move. The Friends of the Barnes group attempted to stop the move by calling for the judge to reopen the case upon discovery of this wrongdoing, but the judge dismissed the petition and the new museum opened this May. The new museum facilities supposedly recreate the original settings for the art in terms of scale, arrangement, etc, but with improved lighting, access, and the addition of dining facilities, classrooms, etc. (Of course, the museum website does not contain any information about the history of the collection between the time of Barnes' assembling of it, and its current situation.)

The film itself was just ok; the lack of interviews with the antagonists (the politicians and charities who engineered the move) makes it very one-sided. I think a stronger case could have been made for the move, which would have brought more tension and, ultimately, interest to the film, even if the filmmakers still came down in favor of Barnes' original intentions. The pacing was ok, sometimes a bit slow, and there were a lot of repetitive shots; I don’t even know how many times the filmmakers re-used the image of the front of the museum - couldn’t they have gone on a tour and filmed the grounds, at least? (Maybe they were prevented by the Foundation staff.) The proponents they found to interview were interesting and personable, though, and the editing clearly built the case. One couldn’t help but sympathize for all the art historians, art critics, and artists who opposed the move.

My personal interest in this story has less to do with the legal aspects and ultimate conclusion of the case (I think we can all agree that what was done violated the terms of the will, and quite blatantly) but with the principle behind what was done. I’m also not interested in complaining about the big business that is art museums today, although that’s fodder for another post entirely. I’m interested in weighing the claims of private versus public control of the art. Arguably, Barnes' original terms created an elite institution for the purpose of catering to artists and art aficionados, not to the public. The new museum is intended to make the collection as widely accessible as possible while bringing in tourist dollars to the city. As someone known to voice the phrase, “That belongs in a museum!”, I’m not sure what to think; what is the ethical solution here?

On the one hand, as someone trained in art history and a lover of art, I am deeply sympathetic to those who argue, as the Friends of the Barnes and the art historians/critics/artists do, that great art has its own aesthetic-ethical imperatives. It should not be exploited for its commercial value and it should be respected and preserved. We would never agree, for example, to cut up the Mona Lisa and distribute pieces of it around the world so every museum can have a bit; I don’t think any museum would agree to that. The Barnes collection was assembled and organized in a specific way, through personal contact between the owner (patron) and the artists, and that organization and purpose-built venue was part of the art collection itself; moving the art out of this venue destroys this historical link and devalues both the building and the artwork (not in a financial, perhaps, but in an aesthetic and historical sense). Moving the art in this case is the equivalent of cutting it up and distributing it, or rather, lobotomizing it, separating the art from the setting. It is so rare today to see art in-situ, as it was meant to be seen by its original patrons or by the artist, that willfully destroying that situation seems indefensible. This includes both the physical building and location of the works, not just their arrangement on the wall and the look of the wall itself. The Barnes Collection, like the Frick Collection in Manhattan (website), is (was) not just a bunch of valuable paintings but an ensemble with its own value as a whole. (Unlike the Barnes, the Frick was intended by its owner to become a public museum upon his death, although perhaps regrettably his original arrangement of works has been changed over time.)

On the other hand, one could argue that there’s no point in preserving the art and its ensemble if no one can see it. Art is meant to be viewed. One could go further and say that art is meant to be viewed by as many people as possible, thereby giving the artist the chance to bring his message (or lack thereof or whatever) to as many viewers as possible. This position denies that art is only for elites and promotes “art for the masses.” Moving the Barnes collection to a bigger, better, location with more parking and a fancy cafe serves this purpose, as does loaning the art out to raise money to ensure the continued existence of the big fancy museum. As someone who loves art and would like the chance to see as much of it as possible, this view has some appeal for me. Art that’s accessible to all is certainly accessible to me! And I would certainly benefit from seeing it, so shouldn’t it be made accessible to all? That’s only fair!

But then the historian part of me wakes up. Art has rarely, if ever, been intended for the masses. Only in recent times have artists sought for the (world)wide consumption of their work; the only “art” intended for all in the past was advertising. Besides, it takes education and training to “get” a lot of art in the first place; someone without any knowledge of a work of art, its history and context, intended viewers, etc, will not be able to appreciate much about the work if they appreciate it at all. I have experienced this myself from both sides, as appreciative and un-appreciative viewer. I am apt to pass by something about which I know little, and can fully appreciate only those works with which I am familiar. Of course, anyone can be affected by a work of art without really knowing why, but I think true appreciation comes from understanding. I don’t want to undermine the importance of art education here - I would be the first to support greater art education for all students, so that everyone can better appreciate art and experience its effects in their lives. I just don’t think that putting a Matisse on every child’s lunch box, or crowding people into commercialized art museums, will do the trick.

So is there an argument to be made for the return of elitism in art, for the preservation of art in settings with limited access, for appreciation by the few rather than by the many? Maybe it’s too easy for me to think so because I’m closer to the elite than most; I have an art history degree and will soon have a master’s in an art-related field. But I feel compelled to think that the imperatives of the art, the rights of the patron and artist and aficionado, are somehow more important than the recently determined rights of the masses, who, I regret to say, rarely seem to appreciate what amazing access to art they’ve been given. I hesitate, however, to say that patrons should be given the last word in how the art that they bought/commissioned should be controlled after their deaths. They were able to enjoy and determine its viewership during their lifetimes; shouldn’t the rest of us get a chance once they’ve gone? Couldn’t the art revert to the public then? But perhaps the real question here is who (or what) is the public. The Barnes Foundation was never closed to the public entirely; in fact, it was to be open (no more than) two days a week according to Barnes' will. And of course, anyone who became a student at the Foundation had full access to the works. Don’t these individuals count as part of the public? Why should we take away their ability to study the works carefully and in-situ so that less-appreciative, less-educated men-on-the-street can drop by whenever they want? There’s also the problem of the difficulty of conserving works that are constantly on public display, and thus are exposed to higher levels of light, dirt, etc, than works in more limited-access settings.

I think my ideal solution here would be to keep the Barnes artwork in its original location, unmolested, and with reasonable visiting hours, so those who really want to see the art (like me) can do so. This may violate some terms of the original will, but not many. I don’t think we should compromise the artistic integrity of the ensemble to achieve unlimited public access; I don’t think there’s a good justification for doing so. All that’s needed is “sufficient” public access, the amount to be determined by trustees who keep Barnes' vision in mind. More than that is just exploitation of the art for purposes of tourism.

I can’t say I have an answer to the question of elitism in art. Architecture, my chosen field, is perhaps even more dependent on elitism as a driving force than other types of art, since we architects can hardly afford to build our designs without patronage; the expenses incurred in our “art” are exponentially greater than the expenses of painting and sculpture, for example. So I am perhaps naturally inclined to find in favor of the elites, the patrons, the educated, the students, and not “the public.” But since I also think art is so important, I want it to be accessible to all, or at least to all who are interested in seeing it. These days, public architecture projects also tend to be the ones with the most financing, and thus with the best chance at succeeding as artistic statements. I expect that this will be a difficult question for me throughout my career. Thanks to this film, I’m getting a head start on considering it.