I just watched the fascinating 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal. The movie follows the ups and downs of the world famous Barnes Collection, the so-called greatest collection of modern and Impressionist art ever assembled. That would be an interesting documentary in itself, but this one follows the dismantling of Albert C. Barnes’ trust for the management of the collection after death—nearly every provision from that document has been systematically broken since his death in the early 1950s.Albert C. Barnes was a wealthy doctor who started assembling his collection in the early decades of the 20th century. During his lifetime, he chose some of the greatest works by the 20th century’s greatest artists, including Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso.
Most significantly, Barnes wanted to create his museum outside of the elitist art establishment of his hometown of Philadelphia. He created the museum as an educational space primarily, allowing poor art students entrance more easy entrance than rich people. He kept his collection about five miles outside of downtown Philadelphia, as well, so that his collection couldn’t be bought and sold as easily as other men’s had been.
He put all of these provisions in his will so that that the collection could be preserved in posterity as he had intended. He instructed that the collection could never be bought or sold, never moved from Merion, Pennsylvania into Philadelphia and that the gallery could only be open to the public two or three days a week.
Smaller provisions were made to break the will little by little. First, one of the presidents of the board started taking the work to other domestic cities and abroad so that he could raise enough funds to properly update the museum. He started letting in visitors to the museum by the car and busload, upsetting the calm relationship with the Barnes Museum and the surrounding neighborhood.
However, this president’s faults are nothing compared to the next one. Supporters of the Barnes Museum say that this president practically sold the collection to the city of Philadelphia, which was salivating over it for the tourist revenue. Now, despite legal protests and the breaking of almost of all of Barnes’ final wishes, the collection has been moved entirely to Philadelphia, in a space constructed for this purpose.
What do you think about breaking trusts for the betterment of the public good? Do you think art is a hot commodity?