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The Art of the Steal

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matisse at the barnes

I saw a remarkable documentary on IFC yesterday, The Art of the Steal, which is the fascinating story of how the Barnes collection ended up in a museum in downtown Philadelphia, very much against the express wishes of the man who put it together.

Roger Ebert summarizes the film’s message as, “it doesn’t matter a damn what your will says if you have $25 billion, and politicians and the establishment want it.” In this case the establishment included the Annenberg Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Gov. Ed Rendell, along with assorted Main Line plutocrats. These were exactly the sort of people (in the case of Walter Annenberg, literally the same person) Albert Barnes despised from the bottom of his soul. He did everything within his legal power to keep them away from his unique collection of masterpieces, which he wanted to be used for teaching purposes, rather than as, in his words, “upholstery for the houses of the rich.”

“The Art of the Steal” does not exactly come across as, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced: it is a passionate piece of advocacy, and I doubt it is anything like the last word on this subject (my knowledge of which is confined to what was conveyed by the film). But it is an utterly compelling tale of the New Gilded Age, and very much worth seeing.

Update: This story from earlier this month sheds some additional light on the matters covered by the film.

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