I recently watched The Art of the Steal on Netflix. It’s a documentary about the Barnes Foundation. The Barnes has the largest collection of Impressionist and Modernist art in the world. The college I went to was located near the Barnes’ original location and when I was in school I knew there was a huge fight going on between the township of Lower Merion and the institution. I didn’t know the specifics. The Barnes wanted to move from Lower Merion to downtown Philadelphia and the whole thing was caught up in the courts. Eventually the foundation did move. I went to the original location the day after I graduated college and it was impressive and overwhelming at the same time. It was impressive because there was so much and overwhelming for that same reason. I was there for a few hours, but I didn’t have the artistic knowledge to fully appreciate what I was staring at.

The other thing about the Barnes Foundation was that it only allowed in so many people a day to look at the art. And my understanding of the idea was that the foundation wanted to limit the number of people in order to create an intimate experience and I have to agree with that idea because most arts museums are like subway stations everyone is on the move and its noisy.

The film gives the history of the foundation and the vision of its founder Albert C. Barnes who traveled across Europe collecting art.   For him, the institution was for arts students and he decided who could see the collection. He owned the art so he could do what he wanted with it.

He also had a “ironclad” will written to protect his art and vision, but nothing stays static. The documentary depicts the changes to the foundation over the years. Former students are interviewed and they speak negative of every little change. Former board members were supportive changes. The filmmakers fall on the side of the former students.

I feel that the film’s view that the relocation of the Barnes was part of a massive conspiracy was a large stretch. The whole story of how Albert C. Barnes’ vision for his institution was gutted after his death is worth watching. Check it out.

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