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FDL Movie Night: The Art of the Steal

Art, politics, racism, hypocrisy. Walter Annenberg, the Philadelphia Inquirer, old money and Republicans versus a New Deal self-made man. An astounding art collection–considered the single most import art collection of  first half of the 20th century–apparently pillaged against the wishes of its founder.  And all of it began with a cure for venereal disease.  Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal, featuring John Anderson, author of, Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over The Barnes Collection is an in depth, exciting look at the destruction of the Barnes’ collection by its trustees and the city of Philadelphia.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes was born in a lower class area of Philadelphia and worked his way through medical school as boxer. He patented Argyrol, a silver based compound used to treat VD in World War I, and enjoyed his fortune while collecting Impressionist and Modern art which he hung with care in his Merion, Pennsylvania mansion. In 1951, Barnes was killed in a car crash; his will stipulated that his collection remain intact and in its present location.

During his life, Barnes, a New Deal Democrat, was despised by Old Philadelphia. At first the moneyed elite ridiculed his collection of Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau. And then, when this art become hot and valued, they begged to see it. But Barnes thumbed his nose at the “Phila-stines” who had rejected the works’ beauty, refusing to let any pieces be exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Instead he created an art school and foundation. Barnes only allowed his collection to seen by students, or those who  asked and who he felt should see it. He would gladly open his doors to a plumber from the Bronx, while ignoring the pleas of world famous art critics or multi-millionaires.

All this annoyed the bejesus out of  Philadelphia’s upper crust, especially  Walter Annenberg–art collector, newspaper owner, Nixon pal and Ambassador to the Court of St James–who had an axe to grind against the Democrats. And Barnes became was his local whetstone. Annenberg, whose jabs in the Philadelphia Inquirer didn’t affect the doctor while alive, went after the collection once the owner was dead, with the help of Richard Glanton.

Glanton took over as trustee via his ties to Lincoln University, the historically black institution to which Barnes willed control of his foundation. At one point Glanton and Annenberg discussed selling off a portion of the collection to pay for the upkeep of the Barnes mansion and grounds. At issue, said Glanton, were preservation and climate control. And money. Glanton claimed the Barnes Trust was near broke.

The art world had a fit over the idea of the sale, and Glanston backed down. Kind of. Instead of selling pieces, Glanton violated the terms of the trust and took the art on tour and opened the Barnes house to crowds. Neighbors complained about the bus loads of art fans being brought in and parking lot being fast tracked. The term “carpet bagger” was used by a Merion resident in reference to Glanton and a civil right lawsuit ensued; more of trust’s money was spent. Glanton and Lincoln University were removed as trustees and the Pennsylvania Attorney General  took over. A showing of the art opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, horrifying Barnes’ supporters.

And in the end, the Annenberg Foundation and the Pew Foundation, the very same old money crowd Barnes despised, gained control of the collection which is slated to open in a new, specially designed building next year along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Blasphemy! Theft! Malfeasance!

goes one set of arguments. And the others:

Art should be accessible to all. Art should be preserved in a secure environment. This will make money and draw tourists. And besides, the trust was so mismanaged, the state had to step in.

NB: The Art of the Steal was financed by Lenny Feinberg, a former Barnes Foundation student. Every creation has a perspective, and smartly, this documentary gives both sides a voice. How you choose to interpret the motives of all those involved is a function of the self’s reaction to art.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.