This movie's weakness---its favoritism towards one side of the case---is also its strength, as that side is so obviously in the legal and moral right here. Barnes wanted his insanely fine modern art collection left as it was, to be used mainly as a school. He took much care in setting it up as a uniquely low key semi-museum that showed these works in the venue and manner that he chose, and he wanted it that way in perpetuity. Part of that desire was clearly to snub the idiots who ran the Philly Museum of Art, who derided his collection when they hadn't yet been informed---by people who actually knew something about art---that they should like this art.
Art Of The Steal is the tale of their heirs' obviously conspiratorial revenge against Barnes, for having been so right about both his collection and their apparently infinite greed, stupidity, and phoniness. Modern sleazeball heirs of older sleazeball fortunes, like the gangster-money Annenbergs and the hilariously/painfully Machiavellian Becky Rimel, merge here with newly minted sleazy politicians like Bernie Watson, "Judge" Ott, Ricky Glanton, and other patently paid off workers of the political system of Philly, which looks to be about as honest as Chicago's. They all see The Main Chance for their careers and bank accounts, and the best part is how they posit themselves as saviors of the public good while robbing the Barnes Foundation and Lincoln University blind. (And surprise! The 1998 audit that claimed the BF was broke, conveniently ignoring their endless ways to generate cash, was by Deloitte Touche, the slippery Brit accountants heavily linked to so many bailout scams and also to Sotheby's, the art world's greatest crooks.)
An examination of the wiki about the BF is telling; they've sanitized that sucker down to the ground, just as they no doubt paid off Ott and Watson and Steele with promises of endless campaign contributions and entree into the elite circles of botox-frozen phonies that dot the Philly low society we see on display here. Their machinations have taken decades to play out; they've been planning this for generations, clearly.
Because, really!? How DARE Barnes know SO much more about art than them, and be so clearly in the right then and now? How DARE he leave his priceless collection to a small, liberal black college? (Well, priceless until the Pews need to apply for charitable status and suddenly are conservators of the Barnes which they estimate at "above 25 to 30 billion dollars" in worth). How DARE he take away from the old Philly money (grubbers) what is rightfully theirs...except by any fair legal or moral reckoning?
But even the slant of this doc can't overstate the sheer greed and sneakiness and duplicity of these weasels. It boggles the mind, but it's just business as usual: politicians bought off by big money and everybody claiming it's for the public good. The way Glanton used the apparently moronic reporter Fleeson to his ends is quite something as well (though of course she was working for the Annenbergs' newspaper, and you just know Perelman had his grubby little paws in there too; he's a real pearl, no doubt). Everybody wants to be a "star" for a day or a week or whatever....but never thinks about how they'll appear to posterity. This film takes good care of that.
However, it's clear that the BF was played by some real masters. Glanton suddenly had tourist buses going into the Barnes neighborhood all week long in the '90s; he clearly wanted to make the 'hood mad at the traffic and thus give yet more reason for the place to be moved. They sadly played right into his hands; as said, this was a looong plan played out over decades. The gangster money of the Annenberg family has been waiting for 70 years to get revenge on Barnes' superior taste and intelligence, but in the end their transparent greed only confirms his superiority in every way. That they are pilfering Barnes' collection for their foundations, along with the Peeyew Your Money Smells folks and the Scamfasts, all in the name of "charity", is too perfect (I'd like to see a movie about where all their "charitable" money goes, speaking of corruption and buying favors; no doubt Ott, Watson, Steele and Glanton have enjoyed many perks from these coffers).
But the greatest irony is that this little work of art, this simple but so well done documentary, is quite likely to be how most of these people are remembered by the world at large as time goes by. And man, do they look sleazy. I had to crack up when they did a slow close-up of that Becky Rimel photo where she looks so hideous, like some sort of ugly sister of Medusa with a flabby neck and no chin and those beady, sneaky little eyes...you can just hear her whining to her friends over chardonnay at the club, "They used the worst picture they could find!" One can be sure there was no shortage; you can't scheme on this level without it showing up on your face, no matter how often the plastic surgeons stretch it over your head and down your spine towards the flickering, darting tail of Beelezebub.
But seriously, folks, this film really is well worth watching, not just for the entertainment but for the education of how great crimes are made to happen nowadays. The old saying, behind every great fortune is a great crime, is turned on its ear here, and this great crime has stolen a truly massive great fortune from a few schools, Barnes' and Lincoln, and used it to to enrich their own fortunes yet further. THIS is how the game is played: with a cast of plenty, anyone who wants more money and career being welcome if they can slither on in to the throne room, all the way to Ott, who must have quite a fun time looking himself in the mirror these days. "No standing"! Hoho! Perfectly good standing is exactly what this film, the case against this crime, and Barnes' will and original intent do have.
Yes, more people can see the paintings now, and that's the sole positive here, but by that logic every person on the globe should have full access to every painting ever painted, for free...and you know that ain't what these folks have in mind. Where's the money in it for them? The real issue is whether we have the right to have our lives' works preserved as we want them when we're gone, and whether our wills and trusts and wishes will be honored...and this film makes it clear that we really don't, and they probably won't. It's sad, as the Barnes is such a truly unique place, one of a kind, and now it'll just be another collection in the monolithic world of modern art. The exact opposite of what Barnes wanted...but what did he know? He only put the collection together and was friends with most of the artists. What rights does he have once he's gone? None, clearly.
And the true sign of crime here---the $100 million secretly tucked into the budget for moving the Barnes collection before it had even gone to court---well, there's no arguing that...especially since Ott was so obviously bought off. Make that man a Senator!
TAOTS clearly shows how the Barnes Foundation was concertedly made to falter by many people over the past few decades, all for personal gain of power and "prestige" and money, by a bunch of amazingly phony, soulless people. That they are on display in all their greed for posterity in this film is a work of art in itself, and one can feel the hand of old Barnes reaching out from beyond the grave to make the final point here: you can trust a few people, but sooner or later they die off and sooner than later sleazy, greedy folks will show up and grab all that they can plunder.
It sure is nice to see them get theirs here, though.
Sweet dreams, you weasels. THIS is your place in history.