The Art of the Steal (IFC Films, NR)

Money ruins everything.

 Money ruins everything from marriages to politicians—and even art. In The Art of the Steal, director Don Argott documents a sickening crime of greed, set in Philadelphia. What is considered the world’s greatest private art collection is stolen in broad daylight. Argott uses a detective approach to map out the many players in this heist. Philly seems to be full of crooked elitists.

Albert C. Barnes, a pharmaceutical tycoon, had an eye for art. He traveled the world collecting pieces for his private collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art. Throughout his journeys he acquired an astonishing 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and 7 Van Goghs. In 1922 he opened up The Barnes Foundation located five miles outside of Philly in Merion, Pennsylvania. He built a small palace for his art where he could display it the way he wanted to under his own conditions. Barnes was dedicated to inclusive art education. He didn’t think socialites should govern the definition of good art and squander it away from the common people. Students and visitors would come to his museum and view art in a unique way where pieces were hung intimately together. Over the years his liberal ideals created enemies. When he died in 1951 his will had specific instructions to never sell or lend any piece of his collection. He planned instructions so his philosophies could live on. Still, after his beneficiaries passed away his will was no longer followed. After numerous directors, the city of Philadelphia stole the estimated $25 million worth of priceless art to display in their Museum of Art.

With money signs in their eyes, many different people gained control of the Barnes collection. Argott visually pins suspects onto a corkboard and maps out the crime. He also creates a family tree-esque visual to track the lineage of control. With all of these graphics and people involved, he makes a few sloppy editing decisions. Some of the organization seems like an afterthought; that includes a few too many times he says that people declined interviews. But all you end up caring about is who should you really be mad at. Argott does not pin anyone’s face to a dartboard. Amid tourism, grudges, and fame as motives, no one is singled out and punished for this atrocity. Philly is Manipulation City, USA.

Henri Matisse said the Barnes Foundation was “the only sane place to see art in America.” No matter whodunit, the snobs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art sleazily ruined that vision. | Alice Telios

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