Art Talk | The Art of the Steal
I've never felt so torn about works of art, or anything related to the art world for that matter. But after seeing the movie The Art of The Steal I am very torn and outraged about a little something called The Barnes Art Collection, which is the topic of the movie. I had never heard of the Barnes Art collection, and all of the scandal that encompassed it prior to watching this movie, as I'm sure most of you haven't, which is why I wanted to bring this topic to the light. I won't go too into detail about the film as I'd rather you go watch the it for yourself! If you have Netflix the film can be found here.
My outrage and astonishment stems from many factors regarding the Barnes Collection. But I'll get to that in a moment. Dr. Albert Barnes was a forward thinker, definitely ahead of his time (which was the early 1900s). He grew up poor in a Philadelphia neighborhood, but became both a successful chemist and Dr. who invented a STD cure, which was how he ended up wealthy. At some point early on after his success a painter friend of his introduced Barnes to the world of art, which Barnes dove deep into.
I rather liked this description of him...
“He has broad shoulders, stands an inch or two short of six feet, and weighs about a hundred and ninety pounds,” reads a New Yorker profile from September 1928. “His square determined jaw, large head, and piercing blue eyes, which take in everything about him with quick, suspicious glances, top off a solid beefiness that would suggest an Irish police captain if it were not for the seething, restless energy.” (Outsmarting Albert Barnes, Panero)
His immersion into the art world had a deep impact on Barnes and he began to collect pieces of works by infamous artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, all of which were seen as insignificant pieces of crap works at the time. (I know crazy right?!) Barnes was very proud of his collection and wanted to share it with his home city of Philadelphia, and so there was an art show of Barnes' Collection. It was not greeted pleasantly at all, art critics and the local newspaper ripped the Barnes Collection Art Show apart. I instantly think of the First Impressionist Exhibition which was held in Paris back in the 1800's, but we'll save that story for another time, just know it wasn't good for the impressionists of the time.
Barnes was outraged at the way his collection was received and decided that never again would his collection leave his possession, needless to say he was not a fan of museums after that. In fact in the movie it said that Barnes referred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a "house of artistic and intellectual prostitution". He was later quoted as saying "he decried people who attended exhibits and "went about exclaiming, 'Oh isn't it that nice, isn't it lovely?' and [let] their children slide on the floor." (Panero)
At some point after Barnes' public exhibit, people got their shit together and realized that Barnes' collection was in fact as every bit as significant and amazing as Barnes had knew it was all along, and they wanted to get their greedy little hands on it. But I'm getting ahead of the story now.
Sometime after the public exhibit of his collection Barnes meticulously built and set up the Barnes Foundation in Merion, which is about 5 miles outside of the city of Philadelphia. It was to be an art school where his collection was housed with the wishes that the art be used solely" (to) promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.", which was stated in the movie.Barnes constructed his foundation for the sole purpose of being a school, it was not carefully constructed to be a museum. Barnes' collection was meant for the "little guys", not masses of people. The way the movie put it, and I paraphrase, "if a plumber wrote to Barnes saying he would like to come see the collection Barnes would welcome him with open arms, however if an art critic from a newspaper wanted to come see the works Barnes would not allow it". In fact to add insult to injury he would sign his response letter to the critic with his dog Fidèle's paw print. Barnes didn't open the foundation with the intent of it being an art museum, he wanted this collection for his students, to further their education and for the little guys in the world, it wasn't for the wealthy whom Barnes believed used art as a backdrop for their wealth as more of status symbol rather than art for arts sake.
"It will be incumbent upon the Board of Trustees to make such rules and regulations as will ensure that the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places, shall have free access to the art gallery and the arboretum upon those days when the gallery and the arboretum are to be open to the public, as hereintofore provided."- A direct quote from Barnes' Will (The Barnes' Foundation Bylaws).
A few photos from the Barnes' Foundation in Merion.
"It was a handmade thing made in a machine world"- The Art of The Steal
Barnes was so adamant on keeping his art for educational purposes and for the "little guy" that he had his Will instruct these very principals to ensure they remained even after his death. The main stipulations of his Will were that the artwork should only be used for educational purposes, that the collection should never be removed from the walls of the school ever, and that the collection should never be toured or loaned out, etc., you get the point. Barnes did not want his collection paraded around. I imagine he took great pride as he meticulously assembled his collection and he did not want it messed with.
I know Barnes is rolling around in his grave because of the events that unfolded after his death.You would think that an ironclad Will, a legal document, would have no chance of being breached. But this unfortunately was not the case. Seven months after Barnes' death, his Will was under attack. Long story short, (watch the movie!) Barnes' Will, which was drafted by an attorney whom later became "an associate justice of the Supreme Court" (Panero), was completely torn apart. There are many events and agendas that lead to his death wishes to be completely ignored. In my opinion I think it was mainly people wanting to further their own interests and line their own pockets that really did Barnes' Will in.
Barnes' collection which consists of 2,500 pieces, including a set of installation pieces (pictured above) done by Matisse specifically for Barnes' art school, paintings, sculptures, furniture, and much more, all unfortunately have a new home. The Philadelphia Museum of Art. An obviously very well established Philadelphia art institute, the exact type of institution Barnes despised. Hell even I'm pissed about it.
"Critics have called the new facility...a “McBarnes.” “While the new Barnes’ galleries will supposedly replicate the scale, proportion, and configuration of the existing galleries,” says Lance Esplund, “it will be through a Frankenstein’s monster-like revivification.” (Panero)This story really troubles me on so many levels. It's been said before but I'll say it for myself, this collection of art was Albert Barnes'. He's the one who worked hard to obtain an education (by boxing his way for funds), which lead him to be successful enough to have the means of acquiring his collection. He worked hard to get his collection, and it was his and his alone to do with what he pleased; and what he pleased was that his art collection not me moved and to be used to further the education of art students, which is why he went through the trouble of getting a Will drafted to begin with. Although some may say his Will was lacking in terms of a solid plan in some aspects of running the foundation, the people put in charge did not seek to preserve Barnes' death wish, although they had opportunity to do so. They merely made excuse after excuse as to why not to preserve it. But that's just my opinion, and the opinion of many others I will add. I highly suggest everyone see this movie, as it's very eye opening in a frightening way. It really makes you wonder.
As I said early on I am very torn about this collection of work. Part of me says "don't ever step into that museum" as I feel like I would kind of be crossing an invisible picket line, but the other part of me says "holy hell that's an amazing collection of post impressionist work, I would like to see it before I kick the bucket". My feelings of not wanting to betrayal the very idea of this collection' were somewhat alleviated when I read the following comments on the Friends of the Barnes Foundation Facebook.
As the friends of the Barnes Foundation stated, the collection is still inspiring because at the end of the day, amazing art is amazing art. It's just a shame that Barnes' wish was not carried out as he had wanted it. I guess corruption has no bounds, and neither does a person's Will, as this story shows. I hope this got you as heated as it got me.
If you'd like more info go check out the movie + the Friends of the Barnes Foundation site + Facebook!
Live + Love Art!