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One Man's Vision of Art is Sold Out--Very Good But Would Have Been More Effective If It Had a Narrator
Matisse said the Barnes House was the only sane place in America to view art.
Once upon a time, a century and a half ago, a few unknown artists in France had a new vision of painting and visual art. They painted in a style that was an affront to the art establishment which largely dismissed them and their work. They were mostly excluded from the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris because their works did not invoke a kind of idealism that "the powers that be" felt should be in art. They won no prizes for their efforts, and they had to create their own galleries and exhibition venues. But there was one American art collector, a little-known medical scientist who helped develop cures for gonorrhea and venereal disease, who had an eye for modern art. He used the money he made from his cures to acquire paintings by these mavericks that no one else wanted. At the time, they were quite attainable. So, the doctor-scientist begin amassing a collection of these artworks sensing a value and aesthetic in them that most of art connoisseurship had dismissed. But later that would change.
Today, these unknowns and mavericks are household names: Czanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh, and their work is what we now call "impressionism" and "post-impressionism". The man who acquired so many of these works was the late Albert Barnes (1872-1951). He amassed a collection in the early 20th century that makes even the Louvre shake their head in envy. The collection boasts more Renoirs than the entire nation of France! In the current art market, the collection is worth far more than he ever could have paid for them at the time he acquired most of them, reportedly between 25 and 35 billion dollars US (2010). In all likelihood, not even the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art could afford to buy the entire collection at market value. What we're talking about here is a priceless collection. But instead of donating the collection to a museum, Barnes decided to create a kind of educational institution with the collection as its focus. He arranged the paintings in an unconventional manner that matched like-quality and like-inspiration rather than by stylistic period, which is the norm in most museums. This way students could see a painting from the Impressionists period next to a Rembrandt, and understand the similarities.
Barnes died in 1951 and left what he thought was an iron-clad Will to keep the paintings in the Barnes' house and maintain the same arrangement for his school. It was essentially kept that way until the death of the first Trustee head who died in 1988. Now the Barnes Collection appears to be destined for the City of Philadelphia housed in a new museum, something it sounds like he never would have wanted. "The Art of the Steal" chronicles the myriad lawsuits and wheeling-dealings that destroyed the integrity of one man's unique vision of his art and collection. According to the documentary, the paintings will be moved into a museum for the tourist crowd rather than maintaining his wishes for an art school.
Most of the "talking heads" of the documentary are those opposed to the relocation of the collection, which makes the documentary rather lopsided in that direction. However, it is interesting that many people involved in the actual deal, the new Board Members of the Trustees of the Barnes Foundation, refused to be interviewed. In other interviews and statements outside the documentary, they claim to honor Barnes' desires as outlined in his Will. But they refused to be interviewed for the documentary which begs the question, if they have nothing to hide, why not let the chips fall where they may, including the current head of the Trustees, Dr. Bernard C. Watson? And if they have the facts on their side, why did they exclude the filmmakers from attending a press conference? Whether mostly accurate or inaccurate, there is one person you can't so easily dismiss: former NAACP chairman Julian Bond. Bond is one of the most level-headed people on the planet and not prone to extremism. When he sees this as a plundering of a great collection, I am bound to listen. It sounds like the vision of the collection for art students is being thrown away in favor of tourism.
The only advocate for the collection's relocation who appears on camera is the Governor of Pennsylvania, who speaks at length about the advantages for Philadelphia, saying it was a "no-brainer". Of course. Honoring the Will of a dead art collector who won't be contributing to any political campaigns pales in comparison to the big-wig moneyed forces that wanted the collection moved. But never once in the interview does the Governor say he's doing it in the best interest of the wishes of Barnes. He's doing what's in the best interests of his political future is the message.
Former President of the Trustees, Richard Glanton, appears to be the where the trouble started. He makes no bones about having made all kinds of deals regarding the collection which seems served more Glanton than the wishes of Barnes. He authorized a tour of the works worldwide. Certainly, people should be able to see the collection, but would have Albert Barnes approved of this?
The only shortcoming of the documentary I felt was again the lack of a narrator. There were many facts I wanted to know more about that were not covered by the interviewees, particularly stories about from whom and from where he acquired many of these paintings. Still a fascinating account of a very controversial subject. Should the paintings be accessible to a greater public? Yes. But should the integrity of the collection be compromised for this goal? I leave that up to the viewer.
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