The Art of the Steal turns a scandal over a billion-dollar collection into riveting viewing 

There are few concepts so persistently used, abused, and willfully misconstrued by American demagogues as "the public good." Whichever side you came down on in the recent debate on health care reform, for example, there's no denying that all involved blathered until they were blue in the face that they were doing the tough, unpopular but ultimately correct thing for "the American people" (whoever they are).

Don Argott's documentary The Art of the Steal depicts a public scandal that may seem worlds away from such matters. Compared to the basic need for health coverage, access to art may appear so miniscule an issue as to be insignificant — hopelessly elitist, even. But in fact, many of the very same players, and the exact same motives, are at play. What is the function of culture in America? Is there any safe haven for enduring, humanistic values? Can art enrich lives, or can it now live only among the rich?

Director Argott details the systematic dismantling of the Barnes Foundation, a private trust created by Albert C. Barnes in 1922. Barnes was a working-class kid from Philly who became a self-made millionaire. He discovered modern art well ahead of the curve, and through his own intellectual curiosity he amassed an enormous private collection of post-Impressionist and pre-Cubist works. When all is said and done — the documentary runs up to 2008 — that collection is valued at around $25 billion. Yes, not million. Billion.

Barnes, an FDR liberal and early integrationist, despised the conservative Philadelphia establishment — especially publishing magnates / Nixon-Reagan BFFs the Annenberg family. Although the Annenbergs had strong ties to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to Barnes they were little more than philistines using culture as a backdrop for their conspicuous elitist privilege. Anxious to protect his art from this group and others like them, Barnes stipulated that the works be housed in a small building in suburban Merion, Pa. — just 4.6 miles from Philly — and that they couldn't be removed or loaned. What's more, the facility would not have open museum hours. People would have to make themselves available to the art, not vice versa.

Where things go from there is far too complicated and contentious to elaborate in this review — in part because Argott goes to great lengths to construct The Art of the Steal as a kind of legal procedural. He builds a convincing case for the Barnes Foundation as an important chapter in American cultural history — one whose pages should not be pulled asunder. Detailing too much would merely make a trivial mishmash of Arnett's legwork. But it's not unsportsmanlike, I think, to let you know why there is a controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation.

Essentially, the exact constellation of moneyed interests Barnes feared in his lifetime — self-serving philanthropists like the Annenbergs, newcomers such as the Pew Charitable Trust, the opposing aesthetes of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and some well-connected politicians and lawyers — systematically struck down each proviso in Barnes' will. This led to the eventual guardianship / destruction (take your pick) of the Barnes Foundation and its art by its former enemies. They are now building a Barnes museum space to permanently house the collection — in the heart of Philadelphia, not far from the PMA, as just another acquisition on a pedestal.

The Art of the Steal has itself proven controversial. Many reviews decry Argott's one-sidedness in favor of the Barnes legacy and against the Philly establishment's takeover. While the film makes no bones about its partisanship, it must also be said that many key players on the Pew / Annenberg / PMA side declined interview requests. Others have argued that Steal, and the pro-Barnes contingent, are essentially making a fuss over "moving some paintings five miles down the road," i.e., nothing much at all.

But again, the real issue explored by The Art of the Steal comes down to competing and ultimately incompatible concepts of (that phrase again) "the public good." Albert Barnes thought that keeping the art away from the powerful meant that it could be seen by individuals, singly or in small groups, who were interested enough to seek it out. It was always there, for intensive, concentrated looking.

In opposition, the major institutions which administer culture in our capitalist society — the museums and their well-connected friends — argue that the public good is served by making the art accessible to as many people as possible, in big white tourist cathedrals, where the curious can wend through galleries in droves. Sending the art to other parts of the world is also part of this grander, global vision, enabled by a culture industry Barnes both feared and couldn't fully foresee.

Needless to say, there are valid arguments on both sides. But the most forceful, and most disturbing, proposition Argott and company deliver in The Art of the Steal is the one that they stop short of making. Once Barnes' humanistic mission, for all its curmudgeonly intractability, is dismantled, there is only one legal hurdle left: busting the billion-dollar collection when "the public good" dictates it's for the best, sending it off to Sotheby's to fulfill its "true" destiny as Commodity. Barnes, for his part, thought of modern art as something a bit different: an intrinsic component of our collective story — a public good deserving of a little privacy.

Following the 6:30 p.m. screening Monday, March 29, there will be a panel discussion around the issues raised in the film. Panelists include gallery director Jodi Hays Gresham from Tennessee State University; Jim Hoobler, senior curator of art and architecture at the Tennessee State Museum; and curator Mark Scala from the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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