Quick, what do the city of Philadelphia, the dictator Hitler, and the tyrant Bonaparte have in common? They're all three among the greatest looters of art in history.
I know injustice is everywhere, but it still rankles me to hear about it. Last night I got around to watching The Art of the Steal (it's also on Netflix), the documentary film about how the immoral scoundrels who run the city of Philadelphia stole the private Barnes Collection.
Albert Barnes was an eccentric doctor who built a peerless collection of impressionist and early modern art back when it was unpopular and nobody else wanted it. He wanted the collection used for education and left the art behind arranged exquisitely in a building he had constructed specially to house it. He endowed a Foundation to care for it and left a very specific will stating his intentions for his Foundation and his paintings. Henri Matisse called it the only sane place in America to view art.
Primary among Barnes' wishes were for the collection to continue to be used for education, for public access to be restricted, and for the art to remain where it was. The film documents how the dastardly monied interests of Philly—Barnes' avowed enemies—managed to subvert his will and his wishes and steal art now worth $25 billion right out of the guy's house.
We condemn the Taliban for destroying the Buddhas of Bamyan, but the Brahmins of the Main Line have destroyed a unique artistic legacy just as callously, and with greater, and more cynical, calculation. It's a story that should enrage not only any art lover but any lover of justice. Utterly shameful. The pillaged Barnes Collection in Philadelphia is slated to open in 2012, and although it is certain to be popular with museum-goers, I hope it remains a perpetual disgrace and an eternal shame to the city of Philadelphia among those in the know for as long as it's there. The people who did this may be rich, but they are low class.
Ironically, seeing this film comes on the heels of a particularly luminous experience I had recently that is similar to what Albert Barnes intended for his paintings. I reunited with an old high school friend who lives in Chicago now, and she took me for a visit to her parents' house in one of the city's oldest and most elegant neighborhoods. It was a lovely summer day, with high clouds and warm breezes. The house is just stuffed to the scuppers with really major art, mainly of the color field school—Kenneth Noland, Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, and one of my own great favorites, Jules Olitsky, not to mention some more modern painters (there was a three-section David Hockney screen in the front hallway) and many other art objects such as furniture, sculpture, and early religious icons. I hardly have words to describe the experience—just being able to imagine living amidst that astonishing art every day took my breath away and left me in a state of awe, wonder, and delight. Everything seemed to fit vividly together—the tour from my friend who grew up there, her erudite yet bohemian parents, her courageous sister, the patrician old house, the balmy weather, the loyal little dog. And everywhere I turned, a painting with the presence to make your eyes widen and your stomach muscles tighten. It was one of those perfect and perfectly memorable experiences, and one I will remember always. In fact, one of the best experiences I've ever had with art in my life—and that's saying something.
I hope my friend's parents have seen The Art of the Steal.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.