By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; WE27
The other day at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., visitors could see signs on nearby lawns crying "The Barnes Belongs in Merion." That slogan neatly sums up the premise of "The Art of the Steal," Don Argott's passionate, if lopsided, documentary about one of America's best-hidden and embattled art museums.
The film traces the fascinating story of Philadelphia physician Albert C. Barnes, who, after making a fortune inventing a treatment for venereal disease, amassed a dazzling personal collection of late-19th-century and 20th-century art, including major and minor works by Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso. Rebuffed by the Philadelphia establishment and disgusted by what he perceived as their dilettantish attitude toward the paintings he cherished, he built his own private gallery in the suburb of Merion, where he kept his prizes from the nattering nabobs of Main Line privilege, making it available only to students and philosophical allies.
Since Barnes's death in 1951, the Barnes Foundation has been one of the most eccentrically rewarding destinations in the art world, an intimate, charmingly shabby jewel box crammed with paintings and artifacts that Barnes hung himself to impart his ideas about artistic influences across eras and cultures (Modiglianis, for example, were arranged next to African sculptures). But he left no heirs when he died, and his will -- officially an "indenture" -- has been subject to all manner of fiddling at the hands of trustees, a process that culminated last year in the decision, after much legal wrangling, to move the collection to downtown Philadelphia.
Those courtroom tussles are the focus of "The Art of the Steal," which posits that the collection has been hijacked by Philadelphia's political and nonprofit elite, most egregiously the powerful Pew Charitable Trusts, which, depending on your point of view, either saved the museum from closing or helped damn it to monetized hell. The film admittedly makes a powerful and emotional argument for the case that a profound wrong has been committed, but it would have benefited from more narrative tension, especially in the form of witnesses in defense of the move, on both fiduciary and aesthetic grounds. As one of Barnes's former students yells "Philistines!" at Philadelphia swells gathered to celebrate the collection's new downtown location, viewers might find themselves wondering whether in depicting the conflict so simplistically, "The Art of the Steal" has succumbed to the very false choices that created the mess in the first place.
"The Art of the Steal" ultimately gets mired in the legal weeds, a snare made all the more frustrating by the fact that the move is a fait accompli. The Barnes will be relocating in 2012, which may or may not be good for the art and the people who want to see it, but surely strikes one more blow against those quirky, imperfect American places that are so rapidly giving way to tasteful homogenized boxes. Filmgoers who leave the theater feeling compelled to take action have as their only recourse making a reservation to see the Barnes in Merion while they still can (some galleries have already started to close). Otherwise, they'll just be left with the film's own contagious sense of impotent rage.
** 1/2 Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains profanity. 101 minutes.