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REVIEW: The Art of the Steal

This documentary is too long, but a must for art aficianados

The Art of the Steal: Rates a B-.
Courtesy photo

Paul Simon said in an interview that he knew Simon & Garfunkel had made it when he got into an elevator and heard one of their songs playing.

Well, I finally feel I’ve made it as a film critic. No…none of my quotes have appeared on a movie poster or DVD box yet. It was a letter I got, and a phone call I received. The phone call said “I saw this movie I hadn’t planned on seeing until I read your review of it. I’m glad I did.”

The letter wasn’t as kind. It said that I sucked and I don’t like anything, so I should stay home and watch TV. It ended with a valid complaint, though. The writer stated that in many of my reviews I don’t tell enough about what the movie is about.

That is true, but there’s a method to my madness. I feel like telling anything about the movie might be giving something away. And I always hate when I see trailers for upcoming films, only to see the entire plot revealed before me.

Unless the movie is something I think the reader hasn’t heard of, I won’t reveal too much of the plot.

The Art of the Steal is a documentary most people probably don’t know a lot about. So, here’s the deal on The Steal.

Albert Barnes was born in Philadelphia, and had to work to put himself through school. He took a lot of odd jobs, and even boxed to pay the bills. He graduated from medical school, and was instrumental in coming up with a vaccine for babies that kept them from getting VD when they were born (this was the early 1920s). He became a multimillionaire, and a friend exposed him to the art world.

Barnes would travel to France, and he bought up pieces by Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Seurat, Manet, Monet and Matesse -- whom he also became friends with. Many art critics at the time scoffed at the pieces he was buying. Years later, all agreed he had an eye for art.

In no time, his collection was worth $30 billion. One painting he has is worth $500 million. A few other pieces are so rare, that art appraisers claim they might fetch close to a billion if they were ever sold.

But they never will be sold. Dr. Barnes got so upset with the stuffy art critics, newspaper men and city officials, that he had his will drawn up so that the masterpieces could never be sold. He started teaching art students, and hiring a staff to do the same. His gallery was in a residential area that was hard to get to, but he didn’t mind.

When he died in a car accident (at age 78), everyone else did seem to mind.

At that point in the movie, it becomes an interesting look at the legal wrangling that went on.

It’s interesting to see these pieces, and hear the stories associated with them. It’s also interesting listening to neighbors complain about all of the traffic when one politician changes the hours the gallery can be open.

Someone tells a story about a woman that got a job at the gallery and sat down and cried after holding Van Gogh’s Postman.

I almost cried when I saw the gallery's empty walls, after one board member successfully got around the will, by claiming the building needed renovations. This was his excuse to make money touring the paintings all over the world (and as he brags in the film – getting to have dinner with people like Princess Di).

There’s a scene involving protestors that’s interesting. When you’re dealing with art world, the people protesting are often dressed up and not just a motley bunch wearing jeans and looking like hippies. These are hardcore art lovers that care about what Dr. Barnes cared about – which was not exploiting the pieces and just trying to make money from tourists that probably don’t even appreciate them (they mention one guy that spent merely an hour in the gallery, before saying “I’ve seen enough naked fat women for today.”)

Unfortunately, the two hour film goes over the same territory repeatedly. Sure, it’s sometimes different politicians that are now screwing over the people that have the art and Barnes' best interests in mind.

And since Barnes left this to Lincoln College, a black school, sometimes race plays a part in some of the debates.

I think this documentary could’ve been cut in half and been just as interesting. And, I’m sure we’re hearing just one side of things; but hey, the other side was given the chance to speak up and declined to be interviewed for the film.

At the end of the day, I certainly side with Barnes and the protestors. It’s just that this didn’t happen the year after he died. There was a 30 year period where the gallery stayed just the way Barnes wanted. And it’s hard to really sympathize with everyone when it just means that now more people get to see these works of art.

Any fan of art should see this.

People that are intrigued by loopholes in laws will also find something to enjoy. It’s certainly not a documentary for everyone.

I give it a B-.