In Violation of His Wishes (Film review, history of Barnes Foundation)

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

On Dec. 13, 2004, a Montgomery County judge gave permission for the Barnes Foundation, with its unparallelled collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse and others, to relocate its gallery from suburban Merion, Pa., to downtown Philadelphia.

The decision overturned key provisions of the 1922 trust indenture establishing the foundation, which was created primarily as an educational institution rather than a museum. In the indenture, Albert C. Barnes stipulated that no changes could be made to his collection or the unique—some say idiosyncratic—installation, which mixes nonchronological arrangements of paintings with furniture and decorative-arts objects to illustrate Barnes's theories of art.

The judgment also marked the culmination of a complex battle pitting current and former students and art-world supporters against Philadelphia's philanthropic and political establishment, each side with its own view of how to perpetuate Barnes's vision and put the financially beleaguered institution on a sound footing. And it capped more than a decade of brawling—in the courts, the streets and the media—over the foundation's purpose and priorities.

A new documentary, "The Art of the Steal," directed by Don Argott, a Philadelphia filmmaker, skillfully summarizes much of this history. And, as the title suggests, it casts a cold eye on the forces and players working to uproot Barnes's art from the lush arboreal setting he favored to the museum-lined, tourist-rich Benjamin Franklin Parkway just five miles away.

"The Art of the Steal" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has its U.S. premiere Tuesday at the New York Film Festival. It has been picked up for theatrical distribution next year by Sundance Selects, a new division of Rainbow Media.

The documentary was the brainchild of Lenny Feinberg, the executive producer and a Barnes alumnus. Barnes (1872-1951) used his foundation to promote his aesthetic philosophy, which emphasized artists' shared approach, across different periods and movements, to such formal concerns as the handling of color and line. Barnes's students tend to be fiercely loyal to its traditions. For years, however, spurred by financial necessity and other pressures, the foundation has been transitioning to a more conventional museum, with more public access and amenities. Barnes, who tangled repeatedly with Philadelphia's art establishment and derided the Philadelphia Museum of Art as "a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution," would likely have been horrified by this development, which will reach its apotheosis on the Parkway...

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