The Art of the Steal – Barnes Foundation Lost

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The Art of the Steal

“The Art of the Steal” a film directed by Don Argott and produced by Sheena Joyce tells a compelling and tragic story.  It is about art but it is really more about the money and power that art can represent.

A true story that begins with the life of self made millionaire, Dr. Albert C. Barnes.  Born in the slums of Philadelphia, Dr. Barnes made a discovery that changed the way newborns were treated, medically, across the United States.  His pharmacuetical sales made him rich beyond his dreams.  With his money, he amassed the largest collection of impressionist and post impressionist art in the world.  But when he sought to share his treasures with others at an exhibition in Philadelphia, the work was derided with the most caustic opprobrium, that he vowed never to let it fall into the hands of its museum and high society critics.   In 1922 he created a remarkable educational foundation based on his collection.

Fifty years after his death, a battle rages to gain control of his collection, now valued over $25 billion.  Fearing that his art would become tremendously valuable, he created a will endowing his foundation and asserting that the artwork was not to be sold, loaned or removed from its location in a suburb 5 miles outside Philadelphia.

He foresaw the scenario accurately, if without the details.  Although he tried to secure his legacy through a cooperative trust with Lincoln University, this too was subverted as time went on.

Major powers like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pew Charitable Trust, the mayor of Philadelphia and even Pennsylvania’s governor, Ed Rendell, saw an opportunity to take control of the Barnes collection and make it their own for commercialization and aggrandizement.

(These images by Van Gogh, Matisse and Seurat are only a taste of what treasures the Barnes collection holds.)

It amazes me the way the work itself seems almost forgotten in this power play.  Matisse said the Barnes foundation “was the way art should be seen in America.”  Dr. Barnes did everything he could to preserve the intimacy and educational value of the art.  He felt that art was life.  Yet, it was the monetary value of the art that created this battle.  The art itself had not changed.

This is an interesting observation to me.  As an artist, it is not likely that my work will ever be involved in this kind of controversy.  Yet, I, like most contemporary artists, am involved in the business of art, in placing monetary value on the work.  Sometimes my work sells, more frequently, I take home my efforts.  Those times are damn discouraging and it would be easy to doubt the value of the work.  However, the marketplace has little to do with the real value of creative work.  It is the work itself which has intrinsic value and its excellence has nothing to do with its worth.

A footnote on the Barnes collection.  Not surprisingly, political and monetary conspiracy won out and the Barnes Foundation in its Lower Merion, PA location will be closing on July 3rd.  It breaks my heart that I will not be able to see the work in its true home.  It will shown in its new location in downtown Philadelphia in January, but with a lot less heart, a collection stolen.

“Vanity”  pastel  25″ x 19″

This piece, worked on black velour paper, combines some of the elements I love most.  It centers on the chair which is filled with pattern.  The wallpaper and rug also have dynamic pattern and strong contrasting hues.  The Art Deco vanity lives in my home and its rounded corners and circular mirror evoke a homey feeling.  The reflection and texture created by the paper make more pattern.

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  • Cathy S. Hegman

    Super blog Karen!!! I think that is awful that his wishes are not to be kept. Oh well the important thing is the work gets to live on and be shared….I love you piece it is a real dynamo!! I see you in every stroke! Good job!!!

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