Movie Review: The Art of the Steal

my initial thoughts, which form the basis for this review, originally appeared here.

As an exposition of theft and corruption, a civics lesson, and a demonstration of  how non-profits and governments and individuals and institutions conspire to take and govern art, The Art of the Steal is necessary and intriguing. It’s obviously angry over injustice, and thus plays something like a film version of a Rolling Stone article. That’s fine for a righteous rampage, but does leave slightly something to be desired for a documentary.

Part of the problem is many participants in the scheme who are either deceased or declined to participate at all. Though it’s true the filmmakers cannot be faulted for that, and they do their due diligence in informing the audience their requests for interviews was declined, it still makes the documentary feel lopsided. The producers do, amazingly, get Richard H. Glanton to agree to not just one but multiple interviews. Glanton is the lawyer and eventual president of the Barnes Foundation board who defied almost every single wish of Barnes, and who still says he was the only one in the right. A good producer will give an interviewee enough rope to hang himself, and Glanton’s is either perfectly conducted or perfectly edited, perhaps both.

Glanton obviously views himself as savior of the collection, but his actual words, in context, explain how he takes a lovingly cultivated collection and defies every wish of its owner. Why does he do this? In order to make money. His insistence the foundation had more money than when he took over, and that he did everything for the sake of the art, is defied when both he and all the following events claim the collection had no money and thus the only solution is to go on tour and then be moved to the Philadelphia museum. Meanwhile, Glanton was wined and dined and heralded as far more a celebrity than Barnes, who had actually discovered and collected the art.

Did more people see the collection on its tour than would have seen it if it had been kept in the Barnes house, open to the public 2-3 days a week? Probably. Will even more see it now that it is housed in the Philadelphia Museum? Certainly. But now, rather than people paying nothing to filter through a thoughtfully established collection which hosts an art institution in its off hours, they’ll be paying $20 a pop (per the museums website) to see the exact same art which has been appropriated by the city and various organizations.

The other problem with the documentary itself is the way visuals and audio are used. In a valiant effort to keep from being too much of a Talking Head Doc, visuals and cover shots abound. These include shots of the art itself (which probably cost the filmmakers a lot of money, as ‘fair use’ and ‘fancy art’ rarely go together, not to mention fees to lawyers whose only job would be to scrutinize the film), old footage of Barnes and other characters, and panning and zooming shots of building exteriors and legal documents. We never actually get to *read* the legal documents though, as they’re rapidly being blacked out as we see them. This is a good visual depiction of what the filmmakers are demonstrating is happening – the will slowly but surely being dismantled by courts – but since we the viewers never hear the words or get to read the details, it feels like part of the puzzle is being quite literally hidden from us. Since the documentary is all about uncovering the sketchy, it should be above reproach itself.

Then, even with all those visuals and cover shots, the filmmakers rarely if ever use their chance to trim down any of the audio. Though some of the asides are amusing, the film runs too long as it indulges its interviewees too much, and lets too much repetition stay. I know they’re trying to present a clear story with several dozen players, but when any of its points run a little long, we’re going to start getting antsy for the next, and when one is antsy one starts forgetting details.

It’s an important and infuriating story, and the documentary is wholly worthwhile. The filmmakers found a topic relevant not only to the art world, but every citizen. They piece together a coherent picture of what happened, and make it clear what lengths will be gone to – and what sort of chance the public has – when something valuable is at stake. It could stand to be a bit tighter, but it’s well worth a watch for learning, if not entertainment.

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