Wednesday, September 30, 2009

4.62 miles

As I mentioned below, I got a chance, thanks to Friend of the Barnes Evelyn Yaari, to see The Art of the Steal last night at the New York Film Festival. I was pretty disappointed. It's basically a piece of agit-prop; it makes no effort to provide any sort of balance. (I guess I should have been tipped off by the title. No matter what you think of the decision, in what sense were the Barnes works "stolen"? The movie keeps emphasizing that they are moving less than five miles away. Shouldn't it have been called The Art of the Move a Few Miles Up the Road?) I'm sure there will be lots to say about this as it goes out into wider distribution, but for now some initial thoughts:

1. As I've mentioned before, to my mind one of the overarching lessons of the story is the perils of anti-deaccessioning absolutism. The movie mentions that the Barnes art is worth between $25-30 billion. Whether you think the financial troubles at the Barnes were (a) the cause or (b) the pretext for the move (or, if you prefer, theft), those troubles could have been forever solved by the sale of a tiny fraction of the works (without ever going anywhere near the core masterpieces of the collection). Now, if you're going to stick to your position that museums can never sell art (except to buy more art), then you've got to at least accept the possibility that something worse might happen as a result. That's exactly what happened here. Would you rather have 99.whatever percent of the collection in its original location? Or 100% of the collection in a new location?

2. The movie never really grapples with the public-private issue. A number of the talking heads, including Julian Bond, emphasize that it was Dr. Barnes's work so he could do whatever he wanted with it (including limiting the number of days the collection was open to the public, and the number of permitted visitors). But aren't we always told that great works like these are "held in the public trust"? Doesn't it matter at all that many more people will get to see the works in their new location? I'm not saying that the public interest necessarily trumps Dr. Barnes's intent, but it's a difficult question which, as I say, the film just glides over.

3. There's another tension that I think undermines the whole narrative of the film (and all other Barnes-related conspiracy theories). On the one hand, we're told that the Philadelphia Establishment (cue Darth Vader music, boo, hiss) made no bones about its desire to get its hands on the Barnes Collection from just about the moment it opened. But then, any time any objective evidence of that desire is discovered (whether it's a line item in the city budget in 2002, or a reference in a tax filing by the Pew Charitable Trust, or a conversation involving Governor Rendell in the mid-90s), we're supposed to see it as establishing some kind of secret conspiracy to snatch the collection. We know the powers-that-be wanted to move the Barnes to Philadelphia because they succeeded in moving it. So why bother with all the conspiracy theories? (But see again point 1 above. If it weren't for the Barnes's constant financial troubles, their evil plot to bring the collection to a wider audience could not have succeeded.) I discussed the "secret" budget-appropriation and Pew tax-filing points a couple of years ago here.

I'll stop there for now, and also recommend Richard Lacayo's five-part series on the subject (start here) and Julia Klein's piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday.