Thursday, July 29, 2010

"the art of the steal" documentary

i missed this incredible documentary, "the art of the steal," when it was in limited release in new york city. but thanks to netflix (on demand) i finally had a chance to see it - and it was worth the wait. but a bit of back story is in order. the film documents how a handful of powerful interests (primarily politicians and large foundations) conspired gain control of a valuable art collection (conservatively described as the most valuable art collections in the world) and physically relocate it to downtown philadephia in direct contravention of the govening documents of the foundation.

the barnes foundation, which houses the private collection assembled by albert barnes, in was purposely located in suburban philadelphia. barnes, a self-made millionaire with a fragile ego, was an art collector ahead of his time. when he established the foundation in 1923, the critics savaged his taste, his selections, his eclectic presentation of the works - every facet of his style and philosphy. barnes was stunned at the viciousness and swore his collection would never find its way back to philadephia.

when barnes died in 1951 his last will and testament stipulated that the collection remain where it was currently housed to keep it away from the philadephia elites he so despised. for almost 40 years, until the death of the last trustee personally selected by barnes, the collection was safe from the outside world. but, one of the first changes brought about by the new foundation trustees was sending the collection on a world tour - as a traveling exhibit - with its final stop at the dreaded (to albert barnes) philadelphia museum of art!

things quickly devolved from there - and culminated with a judicial decision approving the permanent relocation of the art collection to down philadelphia. a finale that no doubt had dr. barnes spinning in his grave at the injustice of ignoring his explicit directive. but even with such a one sided documentary it's difficult to muster any sympathy for barnes. the brief sketch of the man revealed someone who - to put it as charitably as possible - was a nasty old curmudgeon.

as an attorney who specializes in trusts and estates matters, i especially enjoyed the legal maneuvering that was employed (aided, no doubt, by equal parts political influence) to accomplish the "steal." but, had the documentary be a bit less partisan, there would have be some room to present the (legitimate) arguments in favor of relocating the collection. while public policy considerations were significant, it shouldn't be ignored that neighbors of the barnes foundation may have kicked off the transfer the collection with their collective "not in our back yard" stance over the addition a parking lot to ease traffic congestion!

while the title implies the collection was stolen, and in a sense it may have been, there were too many legitimate considerations for such a glib moniker. that said, put "the art of the steal" on your netflix queue. and if you're planning a trip to philadelphia... well make sure to watch it before visiting the collection :D

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