The “Art of the Steal,” which just opened at the Kendall Square Theatre, Cambridge, documents a true Horatio Alger story and how it went awry.
A boy grows up in a working class Philadelphia neighborhood, attends public schools, and, after earning an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, studies chemistry and pharmacology in Berlin. He meets a German scientist. Together they develop a new antiseptic silver compound. The American returns to the United States and partners with the German in a firm to manufacture and market their invention. Their product is phenomenally successful. When the American buys out his partner five years later, it provides him with vast financial resources.
So now what does he do?
If he’s Albert C. Barnes, he satisfies his voracious appetite for learning by studying psychology, philosophy and art. He reads John Dewey, George Santayana, and William James, among others. He develops his own concepts about education and shares his good fortune with his workers. The self-made man hangs fine art and holds classes in art appreciation at his factories. He establishes the Barnes Foundation to provide nondiscriminatory access to art and education.
When Dr. Barnes dies in an automobile accident in 1951, his will leaves his substantial estate to Lincoln University, a small African-American college. It also leaves strict instructions that his Foundation should always be an educational institution and that the paintings never be removed from the gallery he had built especially to showcase his collection. He’d amassed 181 works by Pierre-August Renoir, 69 by Paul Cezanne, 59 by Henri Matisse, and 46 by Pablo Picasso in addition to works by Claude Monet, El Greco, and Modigliani, among many others. He’d also collected African art before it was fashionable and American antiques. The art is now valued at $25 billion.
If anyone is still of the opinion that the art world is a rarified universe inhabited by polite people, this film will quickly disabuse them of the notion. It’s not surprising that with $25 billion in the balance, the infighting is intense. Factions wishing to honor Dr. Barnes’s wishes and maintain his gallery as he desired compete with those who aim to break the will and move the art collection to Philadelphia. Everyone from the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love to the PEW Foundation, important international auction houses, Dr. Barnes’s neighbors, and even Julian Bond, whose father was a friend of Dr. Barnes and president of Lincoln College, weigh in on the fray.
The film’s director Don Argott is clearly on the side of the forces that want to honor Dr. Barnes’s wishes. Nevertheless, each faction is given an opportunity to state its arguments. The result is a conflict that resembles nothing so much as an unfriendly corporate takeover.
“The Art of The Steal” shatters the illusion of a genteel art world.