The merits of that new building are not addressed in The Art of the Steal—Williams and Tsien are not even mentioned in the film. More significantly, Argott fails to engage or even acknowledge the two central questions the Barnes controversy (and his film) raises. First, why should reasonable people be forced to live with the intransigent intentions of a man who’s been dead for half a century? And second, might the Barnes collection actually be better off in a purpose-built museum in downtown Philadelphia, where it will be far more accessible to the general public, and a boon to that city’s teetering economy?
What happens to artworks when their owners die? There is no subject that is more charged in the art world, as seen in the heated debates over the status of the Elgin Marbles and the restitution of artworks looted by the Nazis. The Barnes is a particularly trying case. There are, of course, good reasons for upholding the original Barnes intent, beyond a sense of legal rectitude. There is historical value to seeing Barnes’ works in their original context, and in a rarefied place off the well-trod tourist path. But there can be no denying the public benefit, both for the city of Philadelphia and the general public, of opening the collection to a wider audience.
Argott’s film, while skirting these issues, frequently undermines its own argument. In attacking the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its acquisition of the Johnson collection, for instance, Argott gives us a view of Rogier van der Weyden’s glorious Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, as it was once exhibited in Johnson’s somewhat claustrophobic mansion. What we don’t see is its present display at the museum, surely one of the most dramatic Old Master installations in the United States.
In the end, The Art of the Steal manages to elicit sympathy not so much for Argott’s argument, as for some of the dedicated Barnesians—teachers, critics, and friends of the institution as it was—who see themselves, with some justification, fighting the good fight against forces whose power far eclipsed their own. Perhaps this is not the legacy they wanted, but they could do worse. Soon enough, they’ll have a new museum. They might even like it.
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