Director and cinematographer Don Argott’s latest doc, The Art of the Steal, strangely made me feel the same way I felt last year when a news story came out about a woman in the Greater Toronto Area who was forced to get rid of her garden by the municipal government. Reportedly, the woman had a very unruly front garden that spanned her entire lawn, but she said it was made up of hundreds of rare plant life. Her neighbors, on the other hand, said it was an eyesore.
It’s frustrating when one person’s art is another person’s annoyance. And in The Art of the Steal, which tells the story of Dr. Albert Barnes’ multi billion dollar art collection and the strange voyage it takes after his death, it’s equally as frustrating when one person’s art becomes another’s commerce.
Argott’s doc shows a collection, ordered by Barnes in his will not to be removed from its space or opened for public viewing, which is torn between students of the Barnes Foundation and the City of Philadelphia which wants to exhibit the art in a public gallery. The story is shocking, compelling and at times ridiculous, as Lincoln University’s representative goes against the will at every turn in order to make money to renovate the space that housed the collection. When the collection opens to the public and the residential neighborhood in which the art is kept becomes bombarded with tourists, the fate of the collection and Barnes’ wishes, take a turn for what his supporters deem to be the worst.
However, another similarity between this doc and the articles about the woman’s garden is I felt manipulated by both. Following the story of the “stolen” garden, readers were lead to feel sympathy for this woman and anger toward the government and her neighbors. While perhaps her neighbors did care too much about the formality of a front lawn, it later came out that maybe that garden wasn’t so rare, and there was a chance it was really just a bunch of weeds. While Barnes’ collection is by no means a bunch of weeds – it contains 181 Renoir’s, 69 Cézanne’s, 59 Matisse’s and 46 Picasso’s – what happened to his collection may not be quite the travesty it is made out to be.
As an art lover, and someone who usually roots for the underdog and the misunderstood as opposed to the powers that be, it’s likely that I would have taken up the cause of Barnes’ supporters even if the doc had been more balanced, but the doc clearly villainizes the bureaucrats and city officials responsible for moving (and cashing in on) the collection and rallies behind Barnes’ supporters. So, while the story of Barnes and his collection is fascinating, I can’t help but feel that the doc could have benefited from a little more balance.
The Art of the Steal will have its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.