‘The Art of the Steal’ raises questions about art museum move

By Patrick Gallagher
March 18, 2010

If people are suspected of stealing artwork they are arrested, brought to trial, judged and, if convicted, sent to jail. Simple, it’s against the law. But, what if it was the court itself that was helping to steal the art? And what if it was a $25 billion collection?

A new film contends to tell the story of what it calls “THE scandal of the art world in modern America.” The film, “The Art of the Steal,” is the story of the Philadelphia Barnes Foundation, told by National Public Radio writer Joel Rose.

Located not a half hour from Cabrini College, the Barnes Foundation is a world-renowned art collection.

It houses one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early-modern paintings. There are large numbers of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir and Modigliani. They were all brought together by the famous art collector Albert C. Barnes.

The Barnes Foundation, or just the Barnes, was established in 1922 in order to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts,”  according to its Web site.

The heart of the court battle is this: The Barnes Foundation is on a side street near St. Joseph’s University and has been operating at a loss for a number of years. A group of prominent Philadelphians challenged the last will of Barnes that the collection must remain in its current location. The law suit sued to move many of the paintings to a new location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it would be more accessible to a larger number of people. The court approved the move. The current Barnes Foundation will remain in the hands of the foundation and will be used for other art purposes.

After a two-year court battle, the court has decided that since Barnes’ death the art should be moved to a location where it could generate more revenue for the foundation.

The vast collection is being moved from suburban Merion to the Benjamin Franklin parkway at 20th Street in Center City, Philadelphia.

Some, however, do not believe that this is the right thing to do. Or that they even have any legal rights to do it too.

Releasing in 2012 is a film produced by Lenny Feinberg, called “The Art of the Steal.”

Feinberg is a former student of the Barnes and is now funding the film so that the world can see what he believes to be the tragedy that is occurring. You can see a preview of the film on YouTube.

Rose spoke with Don Argott, the director of the movie, Sheena Joyce, the producer, and Derek Gillman, president of the Barnes Foundation. The purpose of the movie is to explain what they believe is the tragedy of breaking this man’s wishes and destroying the collection of art. You can listen to the entire interview on “All Things Considered.”

Like any battle though there are two opposing sides.

One argues that Barnes himself had clearly written that his art work, which he worked so hard to obtain and to keep away from the busy city life, should never be loaned, sold or even moved.

The other says that only by moving the collection to a better location will enough revenue be generated to preserve the collection.

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Patrick Gallagher

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