May 23, 2010

Art of the Steal – the untold story of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation

Posted at 11:56 am in Similar cases

The film Art of the Steal looks at the controversy surrounding the move of a collection of impressionist artworks to a new site. The argument against this move stems largely from the fact that the collection, the building that houses it & its site are integral to the mission of the Barnes foundation. While I’m sure that this is the case & they tell a certain story, it must also be clear that none of the artworks were designed specifically for this collection. This is a completely different scenario from cases such as the Parthenon Sculptures, where they were designed for (& in some cases carved in place on) the Acropolis – thus making them a significant part of the monument.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Movie Review: ‘Art of the Steal’ frames a tale of intrigue
Friday, April 02, 2010
By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Controversy still stirs over the Elgin Marbles — the Athens Parthenon sculptures collected by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s and put on display in the British Museum, London. The Greek government has requested their return.

The past decade has seen artworks once in the possession of great Western museums taken back to their countries of origin, and others pillaged by Nazi Germany returned to their owners.

Now Pennsylvania is entering the final act of what appears to be its own misappropriation of artworks, the move of a treasure of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from their original home in the Philadelphia suburbs to a city site along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

This is the subject of the film “The Art of the Steal: The Untold Story of The Barnes Foundation,” which opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.

It’s not a minor squabble. For starters, one estimated value of the art is $25 billion, although some deem it priceless.

One of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist and early Modern paintings, it includes 181 by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 Picassos and seven van Goghs.

In the film, globally prominent art dealer Richard Feigen walks through a Sotheby’s auction display, dismissing works as un-Barnesworthy that will later draw bids in the millions. In comparison, he cites one of the Barnes’ foremost paintings, “The Card Players” by Cezanne, and muses about its monetary worth. “The Getty couldn’t afford it. You would need some sort of a nation to buy it.”

Add to that the apparent violation of the wishes of the late founder, Albert C. Barnes, couched within the intrigue of personal vendetta and ambitious politicians, charitable trusts, tourism promoters and the Philadelphia moneyed elite.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s made more egregious by the suggested abdicating of the public trust including use of taxpayer money to support the move.

A product of working-class Philadelphia, Dr. Barnes was born in 1872 and by age 20 had earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After studying chemistry and pharmacology at the University of Berlin, he made a fortune in pharmaceuticals and began to explore philosophy, art and educational theory.

In 1922, he established The Barnes Foundation to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.”

For its site, Dr. Barnes and his wife, Laura, purchased a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, five miles outside of Philadelphia. It was owned by Civil War veteran, lawyer and horticulturist Joseph Lapsley Wilson, who served as arboretum director and foundation trustee until his death.

Dr. Barnes hired Paul Philippe Cret, architect of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Rodin Museum, to design the building. For the exterior, he commissioned bas-reliefs by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and tile work by Enfield Pottery and Tile Works using African design, reflecting another component of Dr. Barnes’ aesthetic interests.

In 1929, Dr. Barnes sold his company to travel, collect artworks and develop an egalitarian philosophy of education that would be applied at the foundation, which was defined as an educational facility, not an art museum.

He died in an automobile accident in 1951, and his intentions continued to be carried out as long as original staff were alive. Then things began to unravel.

That the programs were successful is attested to by the numbers of former students and teachers interviewed in the film and present at hearings concerning the move. One of them, Bryn Mawr resident Lenny Feinberg — described in the press notes as a “real estate investor, mountaineer and wine drinker” — initiated and funded the documentary.

As may be inferred from the title, the film has a bias and is a documentary to the degree that it details events, but it lacks the dialogue that including strong opposition would offer. This absence can’t be blamed entirely on director/cinematographer Don Argott, whose requests for interviews were denied by many of the major pro-move players.

Whether the film is balanced is, however, irrelevant to the central question at hand. Its value is to bring the controversy to a widespread audience and to explore the dubious behavior of the power elite.

But the overlooked bottom line is that there never has been a question to debate.

The Barnes Foundation is not an art collection. It is far more than that. Its philosophy, building and site are integral to its mission and worth — aesthetic, historic, cultural.

In light of that it should have been evident from the start that the motion to move the art was disingenuous and untenable.

And, one would think, illegal.

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  1. Selby Whittingham said,

    05.25.10 at 9:48 pm

    Surely the large Matisse dancers was commissioned for the museum?

  2. Matthew said,

    05.25.10 at 9:53 pm

    You are probably right – I don’t know enough about this particular museum. Out of the 800 painting belonging to the foundation though, my understanding is that most were purchased after they had been produced?

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