The Art of the Steal


I’m rewatching The Art of the Steal and am reminded about how difficult it is to find good guys and bad guys in real life situations. I’m torn between one man’s vision and what’s ultimately best for a city and the people within it. I cheer when the iconoclastic millionaire fights to keep his art collection out of the hands of the “downtown interests” but sympathize with the city’s attempts to bring such a stunning collection of masterpieces to a location that everyone can access—not just the select few.

In fact, I see many parallels with other conflicts happening in cities across the nation. City leaders bending over backwards to become a cultural destination simply to pull in tourism dollars. Cultural elites bemoaning that the thing they love most is changing because it’s been “discovered” by the masses. Neighborhoods complaining that there’s too much traffic and no place to park.

The one thing that bothers me the most though is the failure to manage change. Albert Barnes was a quarrelsome man who wanted, more than anything, to keep his unparalleled art collection out of the hands of Philadelphia’s elites. His downfall was that he went about it in the worst possible way. Barnes chose to give his collection to Lincoln University, a small, underfunded and predominately black college. Although it was a nice slap in the face to the country club set, it was ultimately his downfall. Unable to fund basic repairs to the building, Lincoln University eventually turned it over the entire collection to the very people Barnes was trying to protect it from.

What Barnes should have done was fight power with power and teamed up with the most well funded, influential museum in the country, relying on them to keep his collection intact and out of the hands of the powers that be in Philadelphia. Of course, Barnes disliked most of the East Coast elite he may not have seen New York as a tolerable alternative.

A much better option would have been to look to a young upstart on the West Coast. In the 1920’s, California’s art scene was still in its infancy but the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art had been around for over a decade. It would eventually become the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and by the mid-1960’s, a powerhouse in the art world. Barnes could have been an early supporter of the museum, creating an exhibition space that fit his eclectic displays and guaranteeing that his collection would never be split up.  The sturm und drang we associate with the Barnes collection would never have come to pass and instead, we’d remember him for his outstanding appreciation of Impressionists and Modern art.

In light of that, maybe the ultimate lesson isn’t just about accepting the inevitability of change and properly planning for it. Maybe it’s about reminding ourselves that it’s not about besting someone, it’s about making a lasting and positive impact.