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Barnes movie – great production values, poor arguments

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May 28, 2010   ·   20 Comments

Dr. Albert C. Barnes in the Barnes Foundation

Nothing says a documentary film should be impartial. But a sincere attempt to get the facts right makes some documentaries better than others. The Art of the Steal, the movie affiliated with the Friends of the Barnes, is such a completely one-sided telling of the Barnes Foundation saga that my teeth were grinding from start to finish.  (I saw the movie last week at the popcorn screening at Drexel.  I’m not sure where the movie’s playing at the moment, although you can now  see it at Netflix. (Netflix info updated 2/15/2011)

Dr. Albert C. Barnes in the Barnes Foundation

With its high production values and heavy reliance on sarcasm to carry the argument forward, The Art of the Steal is in the Michael Moore school of movie-making.   Whereas I agree with Michael Moore and I like his movies,  I disagree with the Friends of the Barnes so I found their movie difficult to sit through to say the least.

The interviews are mostly with the main Friends of the Barnes, and the settings are for the most part richly-appointed living spaces, which we have to assume are the homes of the interviewees. Interspersed are  film clips and photos of Albert Barnes walking his little black and white dog…in Paris, in Merion, on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Aggressive use of Philip Glass-like music throughout ratchets up the tension and enhances the movie’s one idea, that there is a vast left-wing conspiracy by a cabal of evil do-gooders to pull a fast one on the public and spirit away the multi-billion dollar collection from its home in Philadelphia’s suburbs.

Putting history under a microscope and analyzing it is something best left to trained historians. The well-meaning people who give their analysis in this movie piece together a story from their perspectives as neighbors of the Barnes, friends and former students of the Barnes and former teachers at the Barnes. What results is one passionate outpouring after another, often told with high sarcasm or deadpan irony. It’s the same story again and again — Albert Barnes wanted his foundation in Merion, his trust was broken, evil do-gooders rushed in to grab the institution for their own reasons — and personalities and politics were involved.

Albert Barnes with his art and his dog, Fidele

If there’s an evil do-gooder here it’s Richard Glanton, former head of the Barnes, who brought a racial discrimination lawsuit against Lower Merion township resulting in massive amounts of money being spent on lawyers, which depleted the Barnes treasury and was the catalyst for the actions by Pew, Annenberg, the PMA, the state of PA, Judge Ott and the city of Philadelphia.

One of the under-lying issues not dealt with  — although it was a big issue initially for the Friends of the Barnes —  is the anger  about the breaking of this rich guy’s will.  Most of us will not be rich like Albert Barnes and we won’t leave messy wills with untenable stipulations that need overturning 50 years on. But if you’re rich, you might be all exorcised about this very issue.

For most of us, the move of the Barnes to the Parkway will be a blessing. We will get to see the art! How bad will that be in the end? Barnes initially wanted his collection to be in the city of Philadelphia but when he debuted the works in the city the critics roared against the art calling it primitive and abominable, and the art intelligentsia didn’t go for it either.  Barnes owned property in Merion so he put the collection there, next to his house.  But Barnes didn’t put the art in Merion solely for the neighbors. He wanted ordinary people to see his art.  He believed in art as a tool to elevate the masses; an educational tool to grow a better democracy.  Mr. Art as Experience, John Dewey, a philosopher who believed in art as education, was his friend.  The move of the Barnes to the Parkway will allow Albert Barnes’ educational goal finally to go forward.

That it took some political muscle to make the Barnes Foundation solvent and viable for the future, well that’s just the way of the world. Ask historians how the Social Security Act got passed; or Medicare; or our new healthcare reform bill. It will be the same story. Politics happens. The issue is, what’s the outcome?  The outcome of the Barnes Foundation moving to Philadelphia will be that more ordinary people will be able to see the art. Who’s harmed here?

More about the Barnes at their FAQ page.

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20 Responses to “Barnes movie – great production values, poor arguments”

  1. Jeffrey says:

    The Art Of The Steal is a model of editing. If anything, the trailer is better than the film in this regard. It builds to such a hyperventilating crescendo that one would think this is a paranoiac espionage thriller of the 1970s. In some ways, it is just that. All the misleading and dizzying cuts, like scenes of political glad-handing or a high-stakes auction at Sotheby’s, give the impression of absolute urgency that the collection would be sold to the greater detriment of the public. I think that the greatest deception by the film (and its maker), as well as the Friends of the Barnes, is that in sticking up for Dr. Barnes’ exclusionist vision for his institution, they are fighting a good fight on behalf of the “little guy,” when the reality is exactly converse.

  2. Hey Roberta, thanks . I agree with you that the film was terribly one sided. The production was, in my opinion, not so great – overly dramatic esp with the Phillip Glass-ish music as you said. The film makers really hit it home at the end when one of the talking heads was ranting (and I’m paraphrasing here- ” the art belongs to HIM ” (meaning Barnes) My reaction was — absolutely not, a collection like that , today in 2010, belongs to everyone.

  3. roberta says:

    Jeffrey I like your characterizations of the movie… and you are so right about the false sense of urgency and how it’s like this suspense movie–very funny!

    Sarah, I agree, the collection is truly public domain at this point.

  4. T.S.H. says:

    This reminds me in so many ways of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Not that the collector’s wishes are respected but that time when someone planned and executed one of the greatest art heists in history.
    The experience of going to these house museums is greater than any single work in their collections, especially without the Vermeer…

  5. Thomas Del Porte says:

    I guess it is a free world, so I guess you are entitled to your opinion. Just as the Friends of the Barnes and the film maker are entitled to theirs.

    It is one sided because the other side has chosen to not participate… I really don’t blame them. Why would they? As it was once written… history is written by the victor. And as it is being re written texas text books, we know how reliable “History” is. Ed Rendell, the Pew and Lenfest trusts and most importantly the Annenburg trust have won… They have decided for you what is best… and unless you have been there and studied… you will never understand what you are missing.

    I have had the great fortune to study at the Barnes Foundation. Several of my teachers were friends of Dr. Barnes and were there to understand his intent… so if you think it is just opinions documented by people who heard it down the line…

    For a city that raised a hundred million or so to save a medocre painting done by a medocre painter… it is clear to me that the Barnes is doomed by those who are getting a billion dollar investment for 100 million…

  6. T.S.H. says:

    I think the arguments For Moving It, begin to show their true colors when you think about moving it out completely out of Philadelphia. If mismanagement and desire for the people to have better access to it, is the argument, then shouldn’t it go to the Smithsonian? It would be free for everyone!

  7. roberta says:

    TSH, The Barnes Foundation was built next to Albert Barnes’s house in Merion, and it looks and feels like a museum, with guards, a gift shop, a parking lot, tickets and rooms that don’t feel house-like. The Gardner really was her house I believe, so that’s different. The Phillips in Washington was also a house to begin with (however when I visited it in 2006 its feel is very much a museum.)

    When the BF opens on the Parkway the building will replicate the rooms at the BF in Merion. That experience — apart from the quietude of Latches Lane — could be similar to the experience of visiting the BF in Merion. You will be visiting a place that looks like a museum, has tickets, a gift shop, parking lot…

    And for those who’ve never been to the BF in Merion (the majority of the city of Philadelphia residents–the majority of people anywhere) they will have a beautiful new state of the art place to go to see this amazing collection — in its “period” rooms set up by Albert Barnes just the way he wanted it.

    It’s interesting to think of moving the BF out of Philadelphia and make it a national institution, but if moving it 5 miles was a big politics-fraught struggle imagine the struggle to get it into the national domain. BF is really part of Philadelphia history and I hope that when it opens on the Parkway the education program will not only teach the Barnes method but the Barnes story — this whole saga, which has touched the lives of so many over so many years.

    Thomas, you can call Thomas Eakins a mediocre painter but I believe you’re in the minority on that one.

  8. T.S.H. says:

    I had never seen a monkey puzzle tree or a sequoia until I visited the Barnes Foundation. The delight in seeing these trees, those gardens, with that architecture, those paintings…. it was love. Love for art and nature.
    I just looked at the plans for the Parkway again….. this is a mistake.

  9. Thomas Del Porte says:

    Roberta, The Museum feel of the current Barnes is something new… it is a response to the idea that art is supposed to be in museums and consumed like a broadway show or a rock concert! Heck I even own one of the T-shirts and a soundtrack or two.

    The Barnes Method you spoke of has been slowly phased out… even during the several years I was there the Barnes books were less and less used. They offer classes on Renoir, Matisse and Cezanne and don’t even teach from Dr. Barnes books. So unless you take classes from the De Mazia Foundation, you are not really taking his education. I was not alive in Barnes lifetime, but my teacher and mentor was and knew Barnes… Both of my Barnes teachers, Mr. Church and Mr. Sfarbi were friends and teachers during Barnes lifetime… so they knew the Barnes Method well…

    Then there is the replica building… From the moment you drive up the driveway, you are being taken through an esthetic experience. Like an installation piece the whole or gestalt is not just the art on the walls, but the trees, the Lipshitz on the walls, the african sculpture built into the doorway., etc… Then there is the trees through the windows… how does that get translated into the state of the art building on the parkway? And if you dont think it matters, then you are not looking at the Barnes Foundation, you are looking at something else and… oh yea, it becomes about the paintings on the wall… If you are going to move it… move it and stop the farce. Call it what it is. The Barnes collection, not the barnes foundation! Then there is the move itself. I saw the damage that Glanton’s tour inflicted on Matisse’s joy of life… I saw the thick strokes of paint that were there before it toured and then saw the flat spots when it came back… What historian wants to talk about that? Hey what is some paint missing among the hundreds of works?

    I dont care at this point if it moves because for the most part the damage has been done. Museum people have it in their hands and the art is dead. The stories of the artists will become what it is all about. Who Picasso slept with will become more important than his poor color choices or his exceptional line. Or maybe that Matisse and Picasso were rivals or that Cezanne was a jerk… or that Soutine has gastric problems, or that the El Grecos are not El Grecos… lol Who cares about that silly light, line, color and spaces stuff? how about esthetic traditions in art? That is too hard to understand anyway! I want to see it in period rooms, just like “barnes wanted it” (forget that Barnes was VERY specific about how he wanted it)

    oh… and I wonder what Barnes might have thought of Eakins? I dont recall seeing any Eakins on his walls? Maybe I am not the only one?

  10. roberta says:

    Hi Thomas, well I think there’s a lot of speculation in what you say…eg that museum people will make the art dead…and that museum people (who do you mean here, surely not the curators) are in this Barnes cabal for some reason that is evil and rapacious. This is all speculation. I know lots of museum people at many museums and they are totally about the art. I know Barnes people and they are totally about the art. While it is true that the experience of looking out the window of the new Barnes will not replicate the experience of looking out the window of the old Barnes, so what? Is the Barnes really about looking out the windows?

    The Barnes is about being in a place, having an aesthetic experience and learning. Well, learning takes place wherever teaching takes place, so let the learning begin in the new Barnes. The Barnes Foundation is about education. That is its mission. The new Barnes on the Parkway will have the art, the rooms and educational spaces for people to learn. I’m very excited for that learning to begin.

  11. Thomas Del Porte says:

    Roberta, I am coming from what was taught to me and from what I read in Dr. Barnes books. The historical perspective has very little to do with what is the artifact left to us by the artist… it is all speculation. So in the tradition of Dr. Barnes and Dewey I speak of the objective method. That is a way of seeing the art that is not the current favor of really any museum I have ever been to. The Barnes Foundation is not a museum… it was not intended to be one. Or at least every document I have seen and the words from people who knew Barnes have said that it wasnt.

    The trees… lol well those trees are part of the experience. It is part of the installation. The easiest way I can explain it is for you to consider the relationship of the outside and the inside… the paintings are filled with scenes of trees and their relation to the picture frame. The artist uses light, line, color and spaces to create a mood or feel… a visual quality… Barnes wanted to create the relations between nature and art in real life… When you walk into the main gallery you see trees through a window… then framing those trees you see a matisse to your left and a picasso to the right… then above you see the Matisse… in the floor there is a dark border that completes the frame.

    To deny this is to deny that the artists used the ideas that Barnes laid out in his teachings of the “method”

    Dr. Barnes used all of the elements that an artist would have used to create his own art… it just is hard to believe he used Matisse and Picasso as his pillars and the marble as the platform and the matisse as the top piece to his Very Byzantine and dutch composition… lol

    Is that speculation? I guess when it moves it won’t matter anymore as the objects of art will go back to being historical artifacts from 1951 and before…

  12. Marianne McHann says:

    Thank you, Thomas.
    Like the lessons learned in art restoration, we must go carefully when dismantling the conceptual collection.

  13. The “paint-loss” issue on the Matisse (four comments back) is a myth, propagated by people upset by the tour in the early ’90s. It’s been scientifically shown to be an inherent vice of the type of paint materials used by Matisse.

  14. I’m sorry Gierschickwork, but I saw the painting before and I have seen the painting after. I know several people who could back me up on this… So let’s say it was a paint problem… why didnt the “experts” figure this out and stabilize the paint? Also what about the photos of the paintings laying flat in the back of a truck sitting outside of the museum? Remember Barnes and DeMazia moved the paintings all the time for their classes… so if this paint was suspect, why didnt it fall off before?

    I know several of the people who are involved with this process… and my feeling is that they are all well meaning, but well meaning and doing what is right doesnt always happen. Besides… it is a done deal. I wish the new owners would just go for it! make it a museum and abandon this farce that they care about what Barnes want? I understand it will move… and I understand it will be different… but the idea that it will be better remains to be seen?

  15. Victoria Skelly says:

    I am sure that the perpetrators of this move are aware that the public memory of the Merion building and how it visually represented Dr. Barnes’ principles will be short. Once a new building is established, replete with motifs that satisfy current fashionable thinking about what constitutes art, what will come to pass for “education” will be but a pale shade of what Dr. Barnes and John Dewey has in mind.
    Perhaps reporter Roberta Fallon should refer her readers to the Barnes Friends website http://www.barnesfriends.org in addition to the Barnes Foundation’s website for a more complete view of matters concerning the Barnes. Contrary to what is suggested in her post, there was NO collaboration between the film makers and the Barnes Friends, and interviews were conducted with professionals in the art world as well as with former Barnes students and teachers. The conclusions that the film makers made were entirely without that organization’s influence. Indeed, the directors and producer sought numerous times to interview individuals with a pro move perspective, but strangely enough were not able to find anyone other than Ed Rendell and Mike Fisher to justify and promote this viewpoint. Would Art Blog writers Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof have subjected themselves, with the cameras rolling, to rational inquiry into this issue? I would wager not, all the benefits of expected increased viewership and “education” notwithstanding. An art heist is an art heist, and who would want to go down in history to be a party of it… WHEN all of the facts are laid out upon the table. “The Art of the Steal” does that admirably.

  16. Gary VanGeyte says:

    Everyone seems to be ignoring the intent of Dr. Barnes and that the art was his property. It is all about the money and the Machiavellian assault on his will. You are naive to think different. I am ashamed to think of the manipulation that took place in Pennsylvania and glad that I don’t live there as it seems the laws are enforced by the rich.

  17. amanda says:

    THE POINT IS one man had a trust and it was point blank……and they completely dis announced what he wanted!!!!!! how hard is that to see……..even if this was a little off of historical facts the point is true he didnt want that and had it in writing……if it was your will you would want the same. Correct?

  18. amanda says:

    reply to Sarah McEneaney
    no it doesnt belong to everyone. You didnt pay for it!!!!!

  19. Boulder Flyer says:

    The fact that you like the propaganda Michael Moore peddles told me everything I needed to know.

  20. [...] a review of the Art of the Steal, see this post of the Art Blog. I did not intend to review the film, but agree for the most part with the Art [...]

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