Before we visited the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia last November, we’d watched the documentary The Art of the Steal to learn the contentious story of how many of the conditions of founder Albert C. Barnes’s will were over-ridden. The culmination of these legal battles resulted in the relocation of the galleries housing the prime examples of the Foundation’s 2500 artworks from the Lower Merion Township suburbs to the Ben Franklin Parkway in downtown Philly. After visiting the Barnes, we watched the film again, to quite a different effect.
The film relates how Barnes, scorned by the elite establishment of early 20th century Philadelphia, determined that his collection would remain independent of the city’s elites, the foundation not of a museum but of a school to which admission would be highly regulated. In the legal documents establishing the Foundation he laid down numerous conditions: admission levels were to be tightly controlled, the collection was to remain in the buildings he erected to house the Foundation, the works were never to be sold, loaned, or otherwise dispersed. As Barnes had no children, control of the Foundation was passed on to a Board of Trustees, many of them associated with a small, historically black college in Philly called Lincoln University.
The Art of the Steal sets out to document how a coalition of those Philadelphia elites, let by Walter Annenberg (cast as a lifelong mortal enemy of Barnes’s), the Pew Charitable Trust, various Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politicians, including a mayor and a governor, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s trustees, engaged in an unethical campaign to defeat Barnes’s intentions for the sole purpose of gaining control of what has been described as the greatest collection of Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, with an estimated value of up to $30 billion.
On the surface of it, the Friends of the Barnes, a loosely described collection of former trustees, teachers, and students of the Barnes Foundation, are justified in their objections. As they never tire of pointing out throughout the film, the collection was Barnes’s property, and he was free to do with it as he chose. The overturning of the conditions of the Foundation’s establishment and Barnes’s will clearly means the abrogation of legal documents with utter disregard for Barnes’s wishes. But the story is more complicated than that, and far more unpleasant.
When Barnes died in 1951 in an automobile crash (he ran a stop sign), de facto control of the Foundation’s program passed to a woman the film describes as “the last Apostle,” Violetta de Mazia, who taught French to the students at the Foundation. She ran it in accordance with Barnes’s wishes until her death in the early 1980s. For a decade after Barnes died in 1951, the public was still not permitted entry: the collection existed for the benefits of its students alone. This, understandably, was an unpopular program, and after a series of legal challenges, limited access to the public was granted in 1961.
Although Barnes left a considerable fortune, by the early 1990s, the Foundation was in financial trouble, and the physical plant of the galleries was falling into disrepair. The President of the Foundation at the time, Richard Glanton, argued that the only way to pay for the necessary renovations was to send a selection of works from the collection on tour; this was the first crack in the defenses of the elite little club of teachers and students who wanted to keep the Foundation isolated from the wider world.
I don’t know whether anyone would have foreseen the fallout from that tour. But its effect was to vastly elevate the profile of the collection and increase demand for access to it. Soon tour buses were disgorging hordes of visitors into the neighborhood and local residents were up in arms. The protests of Friends and neighbors prevented the creation of on-site parking, and before too long plans were afoot to relocate the collection to the downtown Ben Franklin Parkway, in sight of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Friends were horrified and outraged by the attempt to thwart Barnes’s intentions. Their little club’s very existence was deeply threatened.
The film casts the Philadelphia Museum, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Annenberg Foundation and others, including the state and city government, as crude, money-grubbing philistines who saw nothing but commercial potential in what had been the lofty preserve of the Barnes’s educational mission. The Friends, on the other hand, seem to have cared not a whit about access to the art by anyone who wasn’t a member of their elect group. Nor do they show any evidence of proper stewardship of the collection in the sense of securing its physical well-being. If I make them sound like as much of a cabal as the they accused the Philadelphia art establishment of being, then you’re reading correctly between my lines.
Because for all the righteous indignation that the Friends parade in The Art of the Steal, there are strange and unexplained silences in their arguments. For one thing, there’s hardly a mention of Barnes’s wife, Laura—not even of her role in managing the Arboretum that surrounded the buildings in Lower Merion. We never learn what she thought about any of the attempts to open up the collection to the broader public; surely she must have had some opinion. But we never learn anything about her in the film. There’s no discussion of the Foundation’s finances, whether there was indeed enough money to sustain the physical plant and care for the art, to keep the school open, to insure the safety of the works in the collection. There’s no discussion of any attempts by the Friends to raise money. I imagine they would claim that by stacking the Board of Trustees, the city and the charitable foundations had effectively throttled them, but no such argument about the ability of the Foundation to sustain itself in any form other than through greater engagement with the public is ever presented by the vitriolic members of the Friends.
More disturbing is the strain of unvoiced racism that pervades the film. Glanton, like many of the city officials, is black, and the sense that the Barnes was being taken down a path of ruin by a group of philistines who weren’t capable of appreciating the nobility of Barnes’s intent is palpable. The first official to appear in the film is Mayor John Street, and he is made to look like a buffoon whose inarticulate public presence betrays his total incomprehension of the value of the Barnes, or so we are meant to believe. And this leaves aside the fact that Barnes wasn’t at all noble in his intent: he clearly had an ax to grind against the Philadelphia establishment that he felt had snubbed him throughout his life. The establishment—charitable and art—is largely Jewish, as well, and there’s a reek of silent anti-Semitism in the depiction of these marauding raiders.
The film was released in 2009, around the time that the construction of the Foundation’s new quarters began. Presumably by that point in time, plans for the new site had been finalized and the decision made to replicate the arrangement of rooms and the hanging of art in them so that visitors to the new facility would see the paintings and sculpture displayed as they were in the Lower Merion mansion. All that’s lacking are the grounds and the Arboretum—which remain open in their original location. I’m hard pressed to understand what was lost, except the conspiracy of exclusivity.
The school Barnes founded continues to operate in the new facility, with the original curriculum designed by Barnes still being taught. But now that the collection serves primarily as a museum, rather than just a teaching laboratory for the school, it is a shame that the original arrangement of the art persists. It’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate the majority of the work on display, crammed as it is higgledy-piggledy into small rooms and festooned with antique hinges and other hardware.
Perhaps that is the final irony. While there are undeniably magnificent masterpieces in the collection—Cézanne’s Card Players, Seurat’s Models, some of the finest Rousseaus I’ve ever seen—a lot of the art is truly second rate. Indeed, I suspect that the legend of exclusivity has fed the Barnes’s reputation as much as the quality of the art itself. And so perhaps it might function better as an educational institution than a museum, given that quantity in this case doesn’t substitute for quality.
But I would warn anyone who watches The Art of the Steal to take its moral outrage with a large dose of salt and suggest to those who make the pilgrimage that they allow ample time to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art in addition to the Barnes. I’d take the former over the latter any day. Should my travels ever take me back to Philadelphia, I would glad brave the Rocky wannabes racing up the steps of the PMA sooner than the haphazard mess of the Barnes’s display. As I noted when I originally wrote about our visit, we spent the day after our trip to the Barnes in the Frick Collection in New York City: two mansions filled with the riches assembled by nasty men. The only difference between them is that one comes away from the Frick with the sense of having been in the presence of great art.