Now Watching: The Art of the Steal. Recommended DVD.

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“A city that has any sense of its own identity doesn’t talk about becoming a world class city. It is what it is. This is the world class of cheerleading and pep rallies. Of building a new baseball stadium, or convention center.”

David D’arcy, The Art Newspaper, on Philadelphia, in the documentary The Art of the Steal

For real life “art of the deal” buzz — who stole what from whom — the movie news this Fall has all gone to The Social Network in theatres now, profiling the rise and rise of Facebook. (The Social Network review by Raj Ranade.)

But you probably missed IFC’s February release of The Art of the Steal, now on DVD, and the political intrigue and back-door dealing in this indie-doc chronicles anything the political season could hope to rival.

It’s the story of Albert Barnes,  physician and pharmaceutical entrepreneur (he developed a successful treatment for STDs), art lover and misanthrope, who died in a car crash in 1951. He left behind what he assumed to be an inviolate trust that would preserve his billion dollar art collection as an educational foundation in perpetuity.

A largely self-made outsider (what the New York Times dubbed a striver) , he’d hoped to keep his multi-billion dollar collection (Matisse, Renoir, Cézanne, Modigliani, et al) in its 12-acre arboretum home, and out of the hands of the Philadelphia art world insiders he’d despised), by specifying that it never be loaned, sold, or moved, and putting its stewardship in the hands of what he presumed would be an immune institution, Lincoln University.

Barnes hadn’t minced words when it came to his opinion of the elite. He clearly intended his legacy to be a foundation, not a museum, elaborating, “The main function of the Museum has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the Arts.”

The first Lincoln trustee promptly died of cancer. The next, Richard Glanton, took the show on the road (insisting the collection go on tour to subsidize repairs). He points out twice in the film that he “had no intention of reigning while somebody else ruled.”  From there, the cast of characters expands to the next Lincoln trustee, Bernie Watson; Governor Ed Rendell; Attorney General Mike Fisher; the Annenbergs; the Pew Foundation; the Lenfest Foundation; and the Philadelphia mayor who all but rubs his hands together fiendishly while twirling a mustache and describing driving by the Barnes in Merion and waving “see you soon!” in anticipation of seeing it in its new tourist-friendly home on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Whatever Dr. Barnes’s ironclad intentions were, making them clear (which he did unequivocally) is one thing, but adequately funding the battle in perpetuity is another. The Board was ultimately diluted, just as it would be in a corporate takeover, rendering his longterm plans for the estate impotent.

Even though the film (funded by a former Foundation student) unapologetically only tells one side of the story, it still plays as tense courtroom drama (inasmuch as city council meetings occupied with parking ordinances can be — and surprisingly, they are).

Legal scholars are still debating the merits of the battle. Art lovers are still taking sides. The Barnes is scheduled to move to its new home downtown, and Friends of the Barnes are still waging a battle to keep it where it is — including a cheeky ad campaign (right).

One thing seems certain: somewhere, Barnes is spinning in his grave (or exquisitely valuable turn-of-the-century urn).

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You can buy the DVD here, click The Art of the Steal.

You can rent or stream it here.

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