Detailing the Machiavellian power plays for a collection of paintings amassed by a Philadelphia physician and now valued at over $20 billion, The Art of the Steal is described as a lucid primer on the politics of the public ownership of cultural property. Dr Alfred C Barnes made a fortune by developing an antiseptic, then spent it on paintings disdained by the city's cultural elite of the day: Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, Picassos, Modiglianis.
When he died in in 1951 his will stipulated that the collection never be broken up or leave the two-story villa that houses it in suburban Merion. For 60 years the city's power brokers – not to mention the art institutions Barnes mocked – have manoeuvered to assert their vision for the collection over his: moving the collection downtown to be positioned as a major tourist destination.
In Time Out New York Joshua Rothkopf said: “Don Argott's documentary has plenty of criticism to spread around: digs at self-serving curators, monolithic endowments and even Albert C. Barnes himself – prophetic enough to see the brilliance of his favourite French talents but naive enough to leave his collection in the hands of a financially unstable trust.”
The Art of the Steal screens this week at Auckland's Sky City Theatre as part of the World Cinema Showcase. This link takes you to the screening schedules for Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin and you can view a film trailer here.
Image: The Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion Township, Philadelphia