The Art of the Steal is not the sort of fast-paced documentary featuring charming witticisms from a Michael Moore-like guide. Instead, the film plays like a whodunit, a mystery devoid of action. Twisting through an intricate narrative of art-world scandal, the film meticulously decodes the motives of a large cast of movers and shakers, artists and students, working towards something that might resemble “truth.”
The story begins with Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who, in 1922, started The Barnes Foundation, an educational institute that also housed his massive art collection. Valued at over $25 billion, Barnes’ collection rivaled the prestige of any museum in the world, with 181 Renoir, 69 Cézanne, 59 Matisse, innumerable African and Native American artifacts, and hundreds of other great works of art. Barnes had a deep-seeded resentment of the art world establishment, for their critical rejection of both his collection and the artists that he believed in. Thus, he designated in his will that the Barnes Foundation could never be loaned, bought, or moved from its home in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion.
Fast-forward a half century and the city of Philadelphia, along with the PEW Charitable Trust and others, have co-opted his entire collection for a new museum in Philadelphia to be opened in 2012, christened The Barnes Museum, a move in direct violation of his will. The path from the writing of the will to the new museum is convoluted. With the goal of upholding Barnes’ will, the film sets its sights on the alleged corruption that led to the possibility of this new museum. Yet, despite the film’s goals, a clear villain never emerges. Its anger is instead vaguely directed at a large cooperative of people who have contributed in some way — often under slightly suspicious circumstances behind closed doors — to the removal of the art.
The film delves fastidiously into the history of the situation, making it feel wonderfully researched and enlightening. It has a sense of urgency and vigor that makes the documentary entertaining; the characters grow on you, their passion is infectious, and it’s all handled with great care. But this is part of the problem. It feels a little too tidy, a little too one-sided. The bias of the film is often overly apparent, and while the history of the situation is explored in exhaustive detail, sans bias, the specifics of the contemporary portion of the story are hazy at best, with its frustration being lobbed at anyone within armshot. This becomes increasingly apparent as very few of the critical players opposing director Don Argott’s point of view are interviewed, and the few who are, like PA governor Edward Rendell, are not given enough time to even have a chance to garner sympathy. Sure, many of them declined to be interviewed, but that fact doesn’t make the bias any less overt.
Ultimately, there is very little mystery to the film despite its presentation as a whodunit. It’s clear from the very beginning that those opposing the PEW and the state officials never had the leverage to fight back and win. That sense of inevitability garners sympathy, though, and creates engaging cinema about a story that might otherwise not find such a wide audience. But watching The Art of the Steal is somewhat akin to analyzing the impact of gravity on a rock thrown out of a window. Will it hit the ground? Of course it will.