On BBC Four: Billion Dollar Art Heist (The Art of the Steal)

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.


3 thoughts on “On BBC Four: Billion Dollar Art Heist (The Art of the Steal)”

  1. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE “The Billion Dollar Art Heist” a k a “The Art of the Steal.” But it leaves an inaccurate impression that the Barnes collection would be forever as if locked in amber if left intact in its historic setting in Merion. Not so. The Barnes Board could have had as many people in Merion as they say they plan on for the Parkway facility. Isn’t it odd that the Board NEVER applied with the local Township for an ordinance change to improve access? Well a citizens’ group did apply for the change and it was approved in 2007! What did the Barnes do to improve access? Practically nothing. Oh, but they did triple the price of admission, even though in court they claimed they couldn’t possibly raise the price or “no one would come.” These people are slippery and lie continuously to sell the public a warped view of things. You’ve just seen the movie, so I’ll tell you that Pew’s head Rebecca Rimel said in an interview with NPR about it that it is “a work of fiction.” She wishes. And just so there’s no doubt in your mind about the real impulses at work, an upper crust gentlman of considerable note replied this way when asked about the Barnes art collection: “The Barnes? No problem. We’re going to steal it – fair and square.” That was in the early 1980s.
    The response to the broadcast from the U.K. in terms of people joining the Friends Facebook group and leaving thoughtful comments has been tremendous. I doubt very much that this corrupt, sickening activity would happen in your country. BTW, is anyone mentioning the fact that the current CEO of the Barnes Foundation – Derek Gillman – is from England? He has apparently done enough mental gymnastics to allow himself to sleep at night despite his documented understanding that the move would have Albert C. Barnes “rotating in his grave.” (Australian Broadcasting 2004)

  2. Hi Evelyn, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure how much of a stir Art of the Steal is causing over here. The Daily Telegraph (upmarket broadsheet newspaper) and BBC Four (the smallest of the BBC channels) aren’t going to have a massive impact beyond their quite clique-y audience & I don’t think either has mentioned Derek Gillman. It’s interesting what you say about not happening over here as there are similar moves made every so often (local galleries sell paintings held in trust etc) but we don’t have the same ‘big beasts’ of philanthrophy who are able to work in the same way as Pew, Annanberg etc.
    Incidentally, if you are able to say, how do things stand now? Is the 2012 move guaranteed or is the latest from Judge Ott likely to prevent or delay it?

    1. Thanks for writing, I see what you mean about the somewhat narrow slice of people who saw the film and have joined our Group, etc. But the numbers, though relatively small, are unprecedented. It occurs to me that the Barnes people and the Philadelphia tourism people believe that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The film does cause outrage, but it also makes people aware of the collection who would likely never have heard of it. Until they got permission for The Move, there was no budget at all for marketing and promotion. Several years ago, a Google search of “cultural sites around Philadelphia” showed that the Barnes was waaay down on the listings. They didn’t even bother to list it with free tourism websites. Their m.o. was to say it was inaccessible, etc. and then do everything to make it so. They never allowed walk-up admissions and until the last big push for membership, they never filled their allotment of visitors.

      You might have museums selling off paintings left in trust, but this is very different. The Barnes has national and international significance as a cultural site with something important to say about democratic ideals. The Friends had an assessment done to verify that the Barnes complex – if left intact – is eligible to be a National Historic Landmark. The Barnes people say they appreciate the significance, but they have never honestly acknowledged their destruction of it. We recently found out that they did commission a study of Dr. Barnes’ country estate in Chester County – Ker Feal – to get designation of it as a site on the National Register of Historic Places. That came through about one month before the 2003 hearings. The purpose of that initiative was so they could wax eloquent about the tremendous historical importance of the 135-acre site and thus get that valuable asset off the table of things that could be liquidated as an alternative to The Move. Although Dr. Barnes did love Ker-Feal and installed a valuable collection of Americana there, the place was not covered by the Barnes Foundation Indenture of Trust. It also has no public access because of the conditions of the property. it’s only a matter of time before it will be sold…

      Now to your questions. We can only say that the legal ball is still in play. Ott blew the opportunity to redeem his reputation and correct a terrible injustice by dismissing the Friends’ petition. He has gone even further, by acquiescing to the Barnes Foundation’s request that the Friends be sanctioned (by trying to make us pay their legal fees). Sam Stretton has just filed a challenge to the Sanctions, which you can see on the top of the Legal Matters page of the Friends website, http://www.barnesfriends.org. Once the sanctions business is square away, we can file an appeal of Ott’s decision with a higher court. It remains to be seen whether the legal system will continue to show itself to be corrupt as things move ahead. This is probably more than you were looking for, but I trust some of the information will be of interest. Thanks again for writing about this and allowing comments.

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