Dr. Albert C. Barnes, born into a working-class family from Philadelphia, put himself through medical school as an amateur boxer and amassed an immense personal fortune in the pharmaceutical business by patenting a drug called Argyrol (a silver nitrate substitute used in the prevention of venereal disease in newborns). He used his wealth to obtain a staggering collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern art, with paintings by the likes of Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh, etc. Barnes’ acquisitions were dictated not by what the conventional wisdom—represented at that time by art critics and stuffy, conservative Philadelphia blue bloods—suggested he buy but by his own progressive artistic sense and aesthetic appreciation. In fact, when he first publicly displayed his collection at Philadelphia’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1923, he was so savaged by the artistic, cultural and political establishment (thanks largely in part to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the daily newspaper owned by the Annenberg family, sworn enemies of Doc Barnes) that he established the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion Township (about five miles from downtown Philly), a private institution where his amazing assortment of treasures could be appreciated by students and serious art lovers only.
When Barnes’ lawyer and fellow art patron John G. Johnson had his collection literally stolen from him after his death—a local museum obtained the works by convincing the powers that be that the Johnson home, where the paintings were to be viewed, was a firetrap and that the art needed to be protected—the doctor took steps to make certain people like the Annenberg clan and other plebeians never got their hands on his collection. In his will, Barnes stipulated that the collection was not to be moved, lent, sold or in any way scattered to the four winds—and placed this art in the hands of both a Board of Trustees (headed up by his protégée, Violette de Mazia) overseen by a small black college in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University. Barnes’ unexpected death in a car crash in 1951 started the machinery in motion to allow the establishment to chip away at his will—and with the passing of de Mazia in 1988, the thieves really got down to business.
The story of what Drexel University history-political science professor Dr. Robert Zaller called “the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II” is told in The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary directed by Don Argott that I was fortunate to be able to see on Showtime on Demand over this past weekend. A wealth of interviews, photos, documents and archival footage is used to tell the story of how a cabal of politicians, culture mavens, billionaires, “charitable” institutions and well-intentioned insiders was able to plunder one of the most valuable art collections (valued at $25-30 billion) by disregarding a man’s last will and testament and moving his treasures to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to satisfy the insatiable need for a tourist attraction, or what one interviewee calls “culture as industry.” The cast of characters in the scandal includes Board of Trustees presidents Richard H. Glanton and Bernard C. Watson, Governor Ed Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor John Street, Attorney General Mike Fisher, Rebecca Rimmel (of the Pew Charitable Trust), Gerry Lenfest (of the Lenfest Foundation) and Leonore Annenberg, widow of Walter Annenberg…an art collector (though not anywhere near the caliber of Barnes) who, in one of those scenarios that proves irony can be quite ironic sometimes, stipulated the same terms as the luckless Barnes in the instructions set forth upon his demise.
While I enjoyed Steal very much, the reason I find it a fascinating work is because after viewing it I had sort of mixed feelings with regards to the outcome. To disregard a man’s will is, as the majority of the individuals rightfully point out in the film, tantamount to a slap in the face—and to witness greed and opportunism triumphant over those people who feel passionately about art does make one a bit queasy. But I have a small problem with the defense NAACP Chairman Julian Bond (a friend of the Barnes family; his father was at one time president of Lincoln University) offers up—that of “he paid for the art; he should be able to do what he wants with it.” The same argument was often brought forth to justify the cannibalistic practice of colorizing black-and-white films, so there’s something about it that just doesn’t sit right with me. (I will, of course, graciously defer to anyone who offers a different opinion on the grounds that I am not an art expert—and in fact, that to me was the biggest crime committed here…that such a magnificent collection of great paintings was manhandled by people who knew about the same or even less than myself.)
“The name of the game is if you’re going to leave your paintings somewhere,” attorney Mark D. Schwartz remarks in the film, “don’t let there be a politician within 500 yards.” The Art of the Steal is a classic account of how the little guy gets screwed by the political and cultural elites, and it is essential viewing for fans of the documentary form. I highly recommend it.