THE ART OF THE STEAL (director: Don Argott; cinematographer: Don Argott; editor: Demian Fenton; music:  West Dylan Thordson; cast: Julian Bond, David D'Arcy, Violette de Mazia, Walter Annenberg, Ed Rendell, John Anderson, Colin B. Bailey, Carolyn T. Carluccio, Richard Feigen, D. Michael Fisher, Tom L. Freudenheim, Jim Gerlach, Richard H. Glanton, Nancy Herman, Walter Herman, Christopher Knight, Meryl Levitz, Bruce H. Mann, Robert Marmon, Toby Marmon, Ross Mitchell, Barry Munitz, Irvin Nahan, Marcelle Pick, David W. Rawson, Jay Raymond, Edward G. Rendell, John Street, Mark D. Schwartz, Walter Annenberg, Harry Sefarbi, Richard Segal, Nick Tinari, Robert Zaller; Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sheena M. Joyce; ; 2009)

"A fascinating good guy vs. bad guy art film about the big business of culture, that puts it on the same footing as big corporations."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fascinating good guy vs. bad guy art film about the big business of culture, that puts it on the same footing as big corporations. Though slow-moving and not always entertaining as it gets into the intricate details of its complex story of the high-culture court fight for control of an art collection. A collection that the master French Impressionist painter Henri Matisse once said is "the only sane place to see art in America." The fine Don Argott ("Last Days Here"/"Rock School"/"The Atomic States of America") directed documentary deeply explores how greed and power motivates those establishment figures who run the city government of Philadelphia, its museums and its influential foundations and shows how they like vandals wrested control of the Dr. Albert C. Barnes' 25 billion dollar collection of modern and post-impressionist art by legally maneuvering to change the will of the great art collector.

Dr. Albert Barnes came from a working-class family and became a medical doctor and medical researcher, and through founding a pharmaceutical firm became a wealthy self-made tycoon and collector of art. The good liberal doctor was a man of superior taste and through collecting the art of Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, Modigliani, Cézanne, and many other great artists before they became popular and before the museums were great collectors, watched his impeccable art collection become better than any museum in the world. Barnes hated the phoniness of the art establishment and especially the snooty Philadelphia Museum of Art and in 1922, in opposition to the prominent public galleries, opened, in the close-by Philly suburb of Merion, a private gallery that was visited by serious art lovers and students by invitation only. When Barnes was killed in a car accident in 1951, at age 78, the married man with no children stipulated in his will that his paintings could never be loaned, sold or otherwise removed from the building specifically built to house them. Furthermore Barnes left control of his collection in the hands of Lincoln University, a small black school, who became the trustees for this valued collection that the blue-bloods of Philly wanted so badly. Things went well when Barnes' disciple, Violette de Mazia, took over and ran the Barnes Foundation as an art school in the exact way the founder wanted it to be run. But when she died in 1988, at age 89, the operation of running the collection fell into the hands of the Lincoln trustees and the ambitious trustee Richard H. Glanton soon became the head trustee and conspired to change the terms of the will and invite the public into the gallery. He found ways to take the collection on a world tour and did everything he could to cash in on the art collection. Glanton even partnered with those establishment figures Barnes hated and never trusted. Eventually Glanton was given the boot for losing a civil-law suit against the citizens of Merion, by falsely playing the race card. But his removal only made it possible for the under-funded Lincoln University to be hustled by politicians like the bullying governor Ed Rendell and the powerful Pew Foundation run by Ms. Rimer, and they hijacked the invaluable collection for a song of over $100 million to relocate in the place Barnes detested most--the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It showed that the power brokers were more interested in tourism than great art.

The documentary tells a classic American story of greed, and how in a period of over fifty years some yahoo wily politicians collaborated with the money people and with the established art world behind them, and pulled the wool over the eyes of the legal system to change a will. They won despite opposed by the good guys (friends of the Barnes Foundation) who were art lovers capably represented by lawyers and had the law on their side. If that doesn't get art lovers hopping mad, I don't know what will.

REVIEWED ON 6/4/2013       GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"