I have a confession to make: I had no idea at all about the Barnes Foundation or the collection of artwork housed in Merion, PA, prior to seeing the trailer for this movie.  After seeing this movie, I feel a more general distrust towards people in power than what I’ve felt before, simply because of what these people can do to be able to get what they want, and will do whatever it takes to get what they want.  They do this all without regard to a legacy that has established something unique and special about art.

Of course, this is a movie review: I can tell you the grade I’m giving this (A-); I can tell you that this is a well shot, well researched movie; I can tell you that, despite the fact that the documentary leans heavily in favor of the support of Barnes’ legacy and the keeping of the institute in the city suburbs, the viewpoints presented are given a fair chance to present their arguments (with a few that turned down repeat requests for interviews).

I can also tell you to see this movie, and to understand how the forces that be were able to pick apart a man’s near full proof Trust and be able to bring billions of dollars worth of post-impressionist and modernist art to the city for mere pocket change. It is very enlightening indeed and well worth the price of admission.

To be fair, both sides of the argument are justified with what should be done with the Barnes’ art collection (as a fair and balanced person, I can try and see both, it’s how I work). There are the people who’ve worked and supported the Barnes’ ideal since before Albert Barnes died in 1951: the idea of the educational experience with regards to art. The building that holds Barnes’ collection is quite small, yet offers an intimate, and quite near perfect, setting in viewing the art. It’s hidden away from Philadelphia, primarily because of Barnes’ hatred toward the power players in the city (mainly the Annenburg family and the Art Museum). And he made sure never to have the collection fall into those hands. He was quite successful at doing this for nearly forty years after his death.

The other side is the power brokers in the city (the politicians, the multimillionaires/billionaires), and how they felt that by bringing the collection to the city, more people can see the collection and it would bring a large economic surge to the city. The idea is reasonably sound enough: for artwork like this, you would want as many people as possible to see it. And, in fact, I would try within certain reason to be able to enlarge the viewing audience.  The execution of this idea though, as presented by the film, was done very unethically. Barnes established his Trust prior to his death, and yet piece by piece, starting when the Foundation was transferred to Lincoln University (as stated by the will), that Trust was undermined and rewritten and deleted, first with opening the doors for the general public (Barnes only wanted it open to the public two or three days a week, tops), then having the art shown around the world (part of the will stated that the art should never be sold, moved, or otherwise borrowed). The story itself concluded almost recently: in less than two years, the art collection will be moved from Merion, PA, to the Ben Franklin Parkway, within shouting distance of the one place Barnes never wanted his collection to be at (which it did end up briefly while on its world tour).

There is no general consensus on how much the collection is worth, though an estimate given in the film puts it from $25-30 billion.  The museum being built on the Parkway is being constructed at a price of $100 million – less than one percent of the collection’s estimate value – primarily out of taxpayer money.  This part I may be wrong about and need to further investigate: this is the one part of the documentary that was somewhat confusing, as several charities got involved in pulling money together for construction of the museum, and yet there was an overlooked earmark in a state budget in either 2001 or 2002 (prior to a judge deciding on moving the collection to Philadelphia).  No one knew about it, and I’m still somewhat left in the dark as to who is actually paying for this museum.  One of the people who declined to be interviewed was Rebecca Reimel, who is the president of Pew Charities, and possibly for good reason: she was one of the major movers who got the Trust changed and got the sponsorship needed for getting the collection moved (it was actually a result of Pew getting money into Barnes that changed the charter for Pew from a private charity to a public charity, which many people seemed to not like at all).

There is a lot to this film, and I really couldn’t justify it all in this simple review.  Essays upon essays, repeated viewings and investigations into the causes and effects of how one man’s legacy got completely destroyed are needed to fully understand how a quality experience will end up becoming quantitative merchandising.  This film is must see, and for good reason: power corrupts, it would seem, and ethics are thrown out the window.


Note: the movie is currently playing at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia.  On Friday, March 19th, the movie will be opening in Ambler and in Doylestown.  Both theaters will have guest speakers after a viewing in early April.  If I have the opportunity to attend one of those screenings, I will, and will try to expand on this review.