I finally saw The Art of the Steal, a terrific 2009 documentary film on how politicians and foundations seized control of the famous Barnes collection of post-impressionist art. Thank you, Netflix. The film tells the story of how the irascible Dr. Albert Barnes assembled his amazing collection and created a foundation to protect it from the Philadelphia establishment he despised, and how his careful plans to build an institution dedicated to art education were undone by those who saw the collection as a way to promote tourism and enhance the city’s cultural prestige.
Martin Morse Wooster told the story in great detail in his book The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent” (now in its third revised edition). But watching the faces of the hucksters and politicos as they explain themselves clarifies a fascinating and maddening tale of legal trickery and philanthropic bad behavior.
One issue mentioned by Wooster and further highlighted in the film is the mystery of a secret $107 million earmark contained in the 2001-2 Pennsylvania state budget for construction of a new Barnes Foundation museum. The earmark was added by who knows whom after the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest and Annenberg foundations committed to raising $150 million for the Barnes Foundation on the condition that its art be moved from its historic building in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, to downtown Philadelphia.
Just last week the Los Angeles Times found further evidence that the fix was in. It reports that in January 2003 an obscure agency, the Delaware River Port Authority, allocated $500,000 to move the Barnes art collection downtown. Why did an agency that collects bridge tolls make an arts grant two years before a court decision permitted the Barnes move?
The film ends by sadly implying that the Barnes art “steal” is a done deal. A new downtown museum is scheduled to open in 2012. But Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a citizens group, hasn’t given up. It maintains that the Barnes legacy is financially sustainable at its existing site and that the downtown museum is pork barrel politics manipulated by Governor Ed Rendell.