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The Auteurs Daily: Toronto and NYFF. The Art of the Steal

The Auteurs Daily

The Art of the Steal

"The much-anticipated documentary The Art of the Steal: The Untold Story of the Barnes Foundation looks at the shrewdly engineered takeover of arguably the nation's greatest early 20th century cultural monument," writes Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. "Dubbed by critics a 'legal theft,' the disastrous plan is to dismantle the Barnes and move it from its historic home in suburban Philadelphia to a tourist location close to downtown."

Not everyone, though, is convinced the plan is all that disastrous. "[M]oving everything 4.2 miles is hardly the desecration this movie suggests," argues Mike D'Angelo at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. "The new space will even replicate Barnes's idiosyncratic layout, in which works are grouped aesthetically rather than by period or artist, so that visitors will have more or less the same experience they would have in the original locale.... Still, even if [director Don] Argott had a strong case, it's not a case that needed to be made on film (or video). Apart from the paintings, there's nothing to look at here - like most mediocre docs, The Art of the Steal just rounds up a bunch of interview subjects and sits them down to yak it up in front of a generic backdrop, though Argott does his best to jazz things up via snappy editing and some archival footage. The only reasons to watch this movie rather than read John Anderson's Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, which tackles the whole brouhaha in far more depth, are illiteracy and laziness."

"The Art of the Steal more than makes its case that the transport of Barnes's art is ethically questionable in that it can only be carried out via the violation of Barnes's will," agrees Karina Longworth at the SpoutBlog, "but the film fails to persuade that the move will have an appreciably negative impact on the working class art afficianado with whom Barnes felt a kinship. Its primary value is as a spectacle of the impotent anger that capitalism can engender even in those who could arguably be defined as themselves elite."

"There are two sides of the story," notes Scott Tobias at the AV Club, "but the film makes its allegiances clear. And that's not a bad thing: In this David and Goliath story, Goliath kicks the ever loving shit out of David, and the film is convincing and righteous in its advocacy."

"The film would rather dismiss today's art museums as money-grubbing ogres than ask more philosophical questions of how they, stuck in a capitalist-consumerist culture, can possibly fulfill Barnes's utopian vision of preserving an experience of art both enlightening and intimate," writes Kevin B Lee at Slant. "Nonetheless, it's dazzling to see Argott confidently lead the viewer through a miniseries' worth of intrigue, spanning several decades and dozens of power players, in under two hours."

AJ Schnack collects links to further reactions, while the New York Times offers a quick primer on the controversy and many, many links to much, much more.

Updates: I should note that Kevin B Lee has pointed out "that Christopher Knight appeared in the film as a strongly partisan talking head."

"The movie spends too much time adjudicating the question of Barnes's literal and metaphorical will, as if preserving a dead man's grudge against the Philadelphia establishment were more important than the disposition of one of the world's great art/historical resources," writes Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper. "But Argott's distillation of the skullduggery involved in wresting control away from the Foundation's board makes for compelling intrigue - if a necessarily one-sided one, since current Barnes officials declined to participate - and points to issues like the increasing corporatization of arts institutions."

Updates, 9/29: "After seeing it several times I can highly recommend it, with a few caveats," blogs Time's art critic, Richard Lacayo. So begins an ongoing series of posts.

"Mr Argott gives short shrift to the advantages of the Barnes's transformation, including an increased audience for iconic works such as Matisse's Joy of Life, Cézanne's The Card Players and Seurat's Models," writes Julia M Klein in the Wall Street Journal. "On the other hand, Mr Argott could have argued more strongly that creating a downtown museum, while also maintaining the Merion outpost for the foundation's archives and arboretum, might actually exacerbate its financial woes by increasing its operating expenses.... The Art of the Steal breaks no significant news - at least not to anyone who has been closely following the saga. The film's accomplishment is to make a sometimes arcane tale involving art, law and the politics of philanthropy comprehensible and compelling to a general audience."

"The film's vocal cast of supportive critics, Merion residents, and former Foundation students notwithstanding, Barnes is undoubtedly the underdog in this battle - for one thing, he's dead." Darrell Hartman for Art in America: "The filmmakers aren't necessarily wrong to approach the story from his point of view, but in doing so they miss some key questions: Didn't the draconian investment restrictions Barnes imposed on his successors make some sort of buyout inevitable? Was his vision of the Foundation's future hopelessly utopian to begin with? Is it really all that important that a bullheaded collector's will be carried out to the letter?"

Updates, 10/1: "Art of the Steal skillfully builds a tension via tense, dramatic scoring and a compelling mix of archival photographs and graphics," writes Farihah Zaman in Reverse Shot. "That it manages to raise questions about art and ownership and arrange them into a compelling heist structure shatters the art-world stereotype of urbane powdered socialites deciding the worth of art over tea is its greatest accomplishment."

Tom Hall finds it "does justice to the incredible story it has to tell by taking a point of view and pushing it hard."

More from Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and Matt Singer (IFC).

Richard Lacayo's next-to-last entry is on "how the Barnes mess is wrapping up"; the last finally turns to the film.

Raphaela Neihausen has snapshots from the after-party.

Updates, 10/11: Jenny Jediny at Not Coming to a Theater Near You: "[N]ot every art collection is created for busloads of tourists - the contrast is easily discernable between Barnes's curatorial taste (closely positioning paintings, à la early schools of art, among carefully chosen objects) and the familiar museum display (white-walls and wide spacing between individual paintings, and wings separating not only schools of art, but continents and eras). Barnes's method was intent on a kind of education that large museums cannot provide, and the potential loss of this intimacy in a new space is a genuine shame."

"Can a design convey an institution's feelings of guilt?" asks Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times. "That's the question that came to mind when I saw the plans for the new Barnes Foundation in downtown Philadelphia, which are scheduled to be unveiled on Wednesday."

Update, 10/13: S James Snyder talks with Argott for the L Magazine.

TIFF 09: Index; full coverage; lineup.

NYFF 09: Index; full coverage.


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