Until about three hours ago I’d never heard of the Barnes Collection. This may make me a gallumphing ignoramus likely to be spurned by Albert C Barnes like he spurned the great and the good of Philadelphia. The same great and good who are now, if this engaging polemic is to be believed, about to commit the greatest art heist of all time by claiming for themselves the nudging $25bn works of art he collected during his lifetime and which in his will he left to be kept together for didactic purposes in a grand dwelling in a Philadelphia suburb.
Bit by bit his legacy has been corrupted and whilst it is plain that the forces now aligned against the memory of Barnes and what the collection could stand for have precious little interest in art I myself kept wondering exactly how I would feel if the precise wording of the will had been followed and these masterpieces (181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 14 Modiglianis amongst them) kept for academic minds only, away from the public. Lord knows I get angry enough about universities having private collections that only lunching dons get to see.
Made in 2009, the film (Art of the Steal on release; Billion Dollar Art Heist on the BBC) is a classic talking heads with various intense art people and quite unnerving political people popping up to put their side – although a good few on the ‘dark side’ didn’t show. This would be interesting even if you don’t care exactly where Cezanne’s The Card Players ends up hanging. But if you find yourself in downtown Philadelphia and it’s in front of you on a Parkway institution wall you might be interested that its presence there ensured the students at Lincoln University got a new accommodation block. And, no, I’m not going to draw the dots for you.
The film ends with the heist complete and the Barnes Collection set to move from Montgomery County to Philadelphia; to move from education institution with public opening to tourist attraction in downtown; from Barnes Foundation to (in the film’s words) McBarnes. The new building should open in 2012 but a quick google before writing this has thrown up the possibility that Judge Ott (he features in some lovely still pictures) may put a blocker on it with a decision due in late 2011. Clearly people are still fighting and clearly politicians are still machinating.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of pissing all over Barnes’s Will I am uneasy with leaping too quickly to the defence of an organisation that would have left the aforementioned Card Players effectively out of sight. I believe completely in the integrity of collections and love institutions who manage to retain an identity but something niggles here. But it’s probably just me wanting to have my cake and eat it: to have pure quirky art institutions, but also affordable, easy access.
What’s not in doubt is the passion and intensity of the Barnes devotees who lined up time and again to speak about their own personal connection with the man, and with the collection. The film is obviously biased, obviously has an agenda and obviously presses the buttons to work up the viewer, but even with all that I can’t help hoping that Judge Ott puts at least a spanner in the works of the smooth political operators, if only because that way they’d have to struggle a bit and it might just make them pause and appreciate what it is they’re fighting over.