When a spiteful man builds a monument to his own spitefulness, we shouldn't be surprised if it attracts followers of similar stripe. So it is with Albert C. Barnes, the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., and the bizarre new documentary, The Art of the Steal. Playing for the last month at the IFC Cinema in the Village (the old Waverly Cinema), the film and its featured commentators -- who should know better -- advance with considerable relish the notion that the museum world is a hotbed of villainy.
According to filmmaker Don Argott, a cabal of grasping nonprofits, notably the sinister Philadelphia Museum and the dastardly Pew Charitable Trust, have conspired to spirit away Impressionist and modern "art worth more than $25 billion" from a bewildered Philadelphia suburb and install it five miles away in a brand new, $150-million museum in downtown Philadelphia, all for the delectation of despicable "tourists."
Egad. Everyone likes a little museum-bashing -- the professionals who run them for us so often seem misguided -- but Art of the Steal takes it to a new extreme.
One favorite story of Barnes acolytes, which is related in the movie, has the collector welcoming a plumber to his galleries but insulting an art expert and denying him entry. Barnes was spiteful, and so is The Art of the Steal, with its contempt for tourists and art experts, i.e., you and me.
Barnes somehow acquired a trove of 800 artworks -- but you’ll find nothing about that in Art of the Steal. Nor about the 50 years of mismanagement that followed Barnes’ death: the limited visiting hours; the refusal to provide color photographs; the ban on any rearrangement of the paintings or loans of them to other institutions.
And then there is his crackpot notion of a "school," with a course of instruction that has amounted to nothing. The cramped arrangement of paintings into symmetrical patterns, punctuated with ornamental iron "wingdings," has certainly outlived its time. Today, Barnes’ eccentric "hang" is not worth keeping, even as an art-world curiosity. Gather them on occasion into their original disposition, but otherwise give it not another thought.
Patron egomania is a commonplace in the museum world, and Barnes apologists compare the foundation to the Frick, which also does not lend its pictures, and the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, which reproduces the dead collector’s rooms as if frozen in time. But Frick and Lehman provided for their holdings well, and made them part of the contemporary museum world, with its scholarship and exhibitions.
Barnes did nothing of the sort. He kept his collection isolated, leaving it in the control of his acolyte, Violette de Mazia -- some say she was his mistress -- and Lincoln University, the historically black university located some 40 miles away, whose long mismanagement of the foundation has brought it to its current pass.
The Art of the Steal is confused as to whether Lincoln is to be honored, as the beneficiary of Barnes’ trust, or whether it is to be counted with the conspirators. Lincoln president Richard Glanton broke the Barnes will to tour the collection to several cities around the world, raising millions, which were then squandered in lawsuits against the Barnes neighbors, who were called racist when they blocked the foundation’s plan to build a new parking lot to accommodate the additional visitors.
Today, in the final year or two before the Barnes moves to Philadelphia (the opening of the impressive Tod Williams Billie Tsien facility is set for 2012), it is comparatively easy to travel out to Merion and visit the collection, touring the musty galleries with their creaky floors, looking at the great paintings that have been held captive there for so long.
The Art of the Steal would have us believe that now, after all this, we should take the $150 million and use it to set the Barnes right in its current home. The suggestion is absurd, of course -- like the man who kills his parents and then asks for leniency because he’s an orphan -- but more importantly, it’s not in our interest, or the interest of the artworks and the artists who made them.
These paintings are too good to be quarantined at an anachronistic and ineffective institution in Merion. The new Barnes facility promises to preserve the original layout of the collection, but one can only hope that this scheme is honored more in the breach. Pictures like these deserve to be seen in all their variety, and that is possible only if we free the Barnes 800.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.