Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Art of the Steal (Rhoades)

“The Art of the Steal” Is About Legally Stealing Art
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

As a former president of the Key West Art & Historical Society, I couldn’t help being drawn to a documentary about how a “treasure trove of the modern art of America, and of the world” was confiscated by the city of Philadelphia against the wishes of its original owner.

It’s been called “the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II.”

“The Art of the Steal” – now playing at the Tropic Cinema – chronicles how the wishes of noted art collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes were overturned in the years following his death. “This is the scandal of the art world in modern America,” says Julian Bond, chairman of the board of NAACP and a family friend of Dr. Barnes.

Today the Barnes collection contains more Cézannes than found in the entire city of Paris, 181 wall-to-wall Renoirs, 59 paintings by Matisse, 46 Picassos, 7 Van Goghs, and more. “The concentration of works by these particular artists is unrivaled,” says art historian Robert Zaller. “The Louvre doesn’t have it, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, they don’t have it.”

Dr. Barnes is often dismissed as a bizarre curmudgeon, but in fact he created one of the greatest collections of early modern art in the world. A working class man from Philadelphia, he boxed to pay his way through medical school. He amassed his wealth by coming up with a product to stave off venereal disease.

In 1923 Barnes was introduced to art by a Central High friend and was soon going off to Paris to buy paintings. Way ahead of his time, he collected some of the best art in the history of the world – long before the big museums were competing for it.

Barnes wasn’t interested in a mass experience; he was interested in a quality experience. He abhorred the idea of rich people “using art as upholstery for their homes.” He wanted to avoid that, so he built a large building five miles outside of Philadelphia where the paintings were put on display for students, organized not by artist or period, but by the aesthetic experience.
He considered it a school, not a museum. Paintings were hung for didactic purposes, not exhibition. “The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America,” said Henri Matisse.

Barnes was a misanthrope who had little regard for Philadelphia’s high society. He described the city as “a depressing intellectual slum.” In turn, his nemesis Walter Annenberg threatened to “crush the Barnes.”

In 1951 Albert Barnes crashed his roadster while traveling between his home and country place. He was instantly killed. His will left control of his art to Lincoln University, a small black college. A way of poking his finger in the eye of Philadelphia’s stuffy establishment.

His protégé Violette De Mazia took over, maintaining the school until she died. But afterwards, all bets were off.

An ambitious lawyer and a tourism promoter played roles in the events that thwarted D. Barnes express wishes and turned the prize art collection over to the Philadelphia cultural mavens. With the urging of local moneymen and their foundation, and with the stroing support of then-governor Edward G. Rendell, Lincoln University stepped aside to allow the Barnes to be moved to downtown Philly.

It’s about who controls $25 billion worth of art, accuses the film.

“A theft in broad daylight,” Robert Zaller called it. Protest signs said “Robbery in Progress.”
“Who speaks for the art, who speaks for the legacy of Dr, Barnes,” the film asks.

As it turns out, no one. The Dr. Albert C. Barnes art collection is due to be installed in its new facility by 2012.
[from Solares Hill]

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