Monday, September 21, 2009

"Shouldn't these works be made available to people all over the world who want to see them?"

Writing about The Art of the Steal, the Toronto Star's Martin Knelman puts himself "squarely on the side of the bad guys":

"The audience may enjoy buying into the one-sided account offered in the film, which seduces us by offering a kind of Frank Capra melodrama in which money-grubbing philistines defeat pure-hearted art lovers who wish to honour the memory of Barnes (who died in a car crash in 1951). And so we are presented with a nasty group of Philadelphia power brokers ganging up to snatch the paintings away from the true followers of the Barnes vision in Merion. I might have been seduced by this version of events had I not had a chance to see the Barnes Collection at its original home in Merion last year. My conclusion: In Merion there are so many obstacles that only a tiny portion of the people who would enjoy this experience can do so. A major flaw of the movie is that it doesn't give a fair presentation of the very strong case for the move to downtown Philadelphia – where, incidentally, the conditions of the Merion site will be exactly recreated, so that the paintings will hang just the way Barnes specified. In my view, it's entirely plausible that some of the people involved in orchestrating the move are tainted by the Philly cultural world's history of back-room deals, influence peddling and dirty tricks. Perhaps you could even say that Philadelphia's super-rich, too used to getting their way, trample on anyone who dares to get in their way. Nevertheless, in the case of the Barnes collection, moving it downtown is the only solution that makes sense. The residents of Merion don't want hordes of visitors who bring traffic and parking problems. The upshot: access is so limited that most give up trying to get in. Instead of being savoured only by privileged local residents, teachers and former students of Barnes, shouldn't these works be made available to people all over the world who want to see them?"

Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic Stephen Rea, on the other hand, says the filmmaker makes "a persuasive case" that a "circle of Philadelphia movers and shakers ... orchestrated the Barnes' move from leafy Latchs Lane to new digs just blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art" (though he does add that the "film also touches on an inherent problem with the Friends of the Barnes' keep-it-in-Merion movement - namely, that after years of the Barnes' being a jewel-box museum with a severely restrictive admissions policy, its doors were opened in an effort to raise much-needed cash. Tour buses and cars started rolling up and down the street, and the neighbors were not pleased. In some ways, the NIMBY-ism of Merion residents served as a catalyst to decamp the Barnes").