The Case Against a Museum

“The Art of the Steal”, Dir. Don Argott, 2009

On Wednesday night the Art Law Society took a trip to see “The Art of the Steal” at the Independent Film Center. “The Art of the Steal” is a compelling documentary that chronicles the half-century long battle over the rights to the Barnes art collection. The struggle highlights the tension between ensuring accessibility to art and preserving the ideals of art.

Albert C. Barnes didn’t want his carefully selected and arranged art collection to go the way of a “shopping mall experience” in some museum. Barnes had maintained his collection in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, removed from the city center. He restricted access to the works, making them available only to students of art and serious observers. Powerful organizations urged Barnes to open up the collection and to make the works available for public viewing. Barnes adamantly refused. Although he was an elitist and a misanthrope, he certainly had good taste. His selected works are estimated to have a value of $25 million.

Despite Barnes’ last wishes, a gallery for the collection is being built along the Philadelphia parkway. Is the move necessary? Will the new gallery uphold Barnes’ vision? Does Barnes’ vision even matter? Perhaps these questions can only be answered when the gallery is opened to the public in 2012.

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