Movie Review: The Art of the Steal

A million years ago when I was young and lithe and had all the time in the world, I walked by the world’s largest, most exquisite, carefully curated and intimately displayed collection of Post-impressionist art, The Barnes Foundation. I walked by it for the best of all reasons when you are 18. I wanted to take the SEPTA to South Street to wander around Zipperhead. But because it was free, because it was next to the Jesuit university where I studied, because I could go anytime, I never went at all.

On Saturday I took a walk to Zipperhead –The Dead Milkmen

I want to grab my teenage self and drag her inside by the hand.

This week I finally had a look inside the Barnes Foundation when I borrowed the documentary The Art of the Steal from my local library.

Billed as the biggest heist in history, The Art of the Steal held my interest (easy, I think old stage coach rubble is interesting) and my husband (a normal person – he likes action movies and football). It seems Dr. Barnes was an outsider who explicitly willed his collection to be held as a school, available to students to be neither lent, sold or moved. He had a bitter feud with the Philadelphia art community who criticized his collection as garbage. This spring the collection debuts in a new grand home along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. In direct opposition to his will.

This documentary is lopsided, coming down hard on Philadelphia art community as robbers. It is an easy story to discuss. All the elements are here, money, power, greed, pride and a lifelong feud. I read articles relating to the new museum and pored over the new Barnes Foundation website. After the vitriolic tone of the film, the museum website feels dramatic.

I wonder if Mr Barnes had accepted the appreciation and the admiration of the art community when it was offered him in his lifetime if things could be different. This feud was about pride, grudges and a non conformist rejected by an elite circle. Truly a drama worthy of Shakespeare.





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