The Art of the Steal

barnes 2

If you ever took an art history class, you probably learned about the Barnes Foundation.  The restricted-access private art collection of Albert C. Barnes outside of Philadelphia was, and is, legendary.  Barnes, with unbelievable foresight, put together a collection of dozens of Renoirs, Matisses, Picassos, and other 19th and 20th century masters, many of whom were not even being collected yet by anyone else.  In addition to this, he amassed an extensive African art collection, which he was passionate about and saw as just as important as the other Western art movements while his contemporaries still considered it “primitive art.”

[Image: The original blueprint for the Barnes Foundation, 1922]

As an art history major, I was always dying to go to the Barnes Foundation– a grand building outside of Philadelphia where the whole collection was housed, carefully curated according to Barnes’ preference for a style he called “wall ensembles,” that gathered art around themes, rather than by time period.

The foundation, which Barnes had intended as an educational center, was open to small numbers of students and educators and was known for its excellent seminars and classes.  But after Barnes’ death, though his will was definitive in stating that he wanted the collection to remain as one collection in perpetuity, never to be sold off, the fate of the collection was exposed to the larger forces in the art world (including his biggest rival), starting a great controversy over what would happen to this famous collection.

[Image: The digital rendering for the new building in Philadelphia]

Today, a new building is being added to the Phildelphia Museum of Art to house the collection (after lots of drama, as detailed in the documentary).  Because it will now be housed in a public museum in a major city, the collection will be much more highly accessible, but does that justify the fact that this was against the wishes of the man who built and owned the collection?   And was largely carried out by one of his rivals?  Check out the trailer to see what happened and how… it’s one of the greatest present-day dramas in the art world!

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