‘The Art of the Steal’, now available on DVD, is a documentary about The Barnes Foundation, a collection of priceless paintings acquired by Albert Barnes and founded in 1922 in Lower Merion, PA. Barnes grew up poor, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, became a doctor, and made his fortune by curing Gonorrhea. He was ahead of his time when it came to the appreciation of such artists as Matisse, Renoir, and Cezanne. High society art enthusiasts initially mocked his collection. Today, his collection is the envy of nearly every art museum in the world, yet per his wishes it has remained in a suburb of Pennsylvania with limited access to the public. At least, until now.
The film chronicles the history of Barnes and his collection, and details his hatred for Philadelphia high society, including those affiliated with the art museum, and his never-ending feud with Walter Annenberg, who ran the Philadelphia Inquirer. Barnes was very clear that he wanted his collection to forever remain in Lower Merion, as a school where the common folk could see and appreciate his art. His clear last wish was that the collection never end up in the city of Philadelphia. Well, due to various loopholes, his collection is slated to come to Philly in 2012.
Admittedly, I don’t know anything about art. Nor did I know anything about The Barnes Foundation. But I found this documentary utterly enthralling. It isn’t a dry film about art at all. It actually plays out much like thriller, keeping you on the edge of your seat. This is a great film for art aficionados, or anyone who is tired of the same old politics, where the powers that be always get what they want … even if it entails stealing a man’s private art collection against his clear wishes.