The Art Of The Steal

by director Don Argott

I must admit, I knew nothing about the Barnes Foundation before making this film. It’s a private art gallery/school that houses one of the most breathtaking and important post impressionist and early modern art collections in the world. As I was soon to find out, it was much more than that.

The collection’s unrivalled holdings are staggering in quantity: 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse and 46 by Picasso, including many masterpieces. Dr. Albert Barnes was a self-made man with a well-trained eye who assembled the art in the early 1920s. He snubbed the provincial elites in his hometown of Philadelphia by housing his collection in the suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania. The first time I walked into the main gallery at the Barnes I got chills. To this day, every time I go, I’m reminded how powerful and important this place is. It’s not just a bunch of paintings on a wall, rather the entire collection is itself a work of art.

Barnes had a passion for what he was doing and he was more concerned with educating serious students in his vision than reaching casual tourists, so he restricted attendance and refused to loan paintings to other institutions. His individualism earned him antagonists with the Philadelphia elite but also gained him many loyal supporters. Upon Barnes’s death in 1951, his will gave control of the collection to the trustees of Lincoln University, the first black university in the United States. His will also stipulated that the collection should “never be loaned, sold or otherwise deposed.”  For the past 50 years the Barnes Foundation has been under siege, first by outside special interests and most recently, by the Barnes trustees themselves.

So why is the current Barnes Board of Trustees going against the wishes of its founder? You’ll have to watch the film to find out. This story is full of great characters, scandal, race, political intrigue, art vs. commerce and philanthropy as big business. It’s been described as a “heist film” and a “classic whodunit.”

One of the things we really tried to do was bring the late Albert Barnes back to life on film. This is his story after all, and over time, the longer he’s been gone, the easier it is to forget about him. He has been reduced to a name on a building. But he is the central character and he and his wishes have ultimately gotten lost in the circus that has transpired since he died.

I love making documentaries. I love the journey they take you on and the interesting people you get to meet along the way. I often say that if you wrote a fictional script of this story it would be too unbelievable. Sometimes, truth is much stranger than fiction.

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