Drama Urge

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STEALING HOME: The great Jackie Robinson was ruled safe at the plate, but was he really?

The remains of an epic custody battle are being viewed in the City of Brotherly Love and the visiting team has gone down to defeat.  At stake was the art collection of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA. The victors seemingly are the City represented by big (huge) corporate interests, private trusts, and elected officials who have successfully relocated the collection to Downtown Philly as an anchor for tourism. The losers are the Friends of the Barnes, arts lovers, concerned citizens, and taxpayers.   Yesterday Washington Post "cultural critic," Philip Kennicott wrote about the release of a new documentary The Art of the Steal which summarizes these events.  But, it turns out that the winners don't like the way they are being portrayed.  Could it be they have guilty consciences?

You would think that a review of a documentary (or any other kind of a) movie by a major newspaper would extend coverage to both sides of the issue.  No so with The Washington Post. In Mr. Kennicott's account, we are offered a decidedly distorted view of what has taken place over the Barnes debacle.

Who does the Post writer choose to feature throughout the interview process? Rebecca Rimel, Chairman and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a person who has not seen and is adamantly opposed to the film under discussion (she wouldn't submit to an interview), which has garnered accolades at the Toronto Film Festival and is having a nice run at the moment in Philadelphia and elsewhere, coast to coast.

So what is the film about or why should you care?  It's about will busting and de facto law of eminent domain in the today's world.  Your rights, your freedoms are at stake. Try as you might, if you've been judicious in your selection of land, property, and especially art in your lifetime, your heirs, whether they be family or future generations, will be excluded in the interests of the greater good of the present public.  Does this seem fair?  Shouldn't you be allowed to say who enters your house and what they leave with? 

In the case of Albert Barnes, his museum was conceived as an educational facility, plain and simple.  And the building and grounds were conceived of an entire unit to house them.  Dr. Barnes was mocked, vilified, and scorned by the Philadelphia establishment during his life because of his views on art.  He didn't have it in for them; rather they had it in for him.  He even approached his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to take over as trustees before he went to Lincoln University.  Lincoln didn't enter the picture late as Mr. Kennicott maintains, rather they were there all along.  There are so many misstatements and digressions in his article one wonders where exactly he is coming from:  Kirby Dick and Werner Herzog - are we really talking about things of substance or the writer's hobby horses?  Documentaries are all about particular points of view; that's why they get made. 

Much has been said about accessibility and the supposed lack of it in Merion.  Well, the museum is about as far from Downtown Philly as Silver Spring is from Downtown DC, and sits right on the border across from City Line Avenue.  When it shifts to its new location, I can guarantee that it will be much less accessible for the lovers of the collection.  Every time an organization "takes it to the next level," the fans suffer a loss of access, whether it is structural or emotional.  I've seen it before in moves of theaters, stadia, arts venues, and more.  Viewers will be placed at a greater distance; marketing forces will favor big donors; middlemen and women will intervene between the patron and the art; and the experience, the aesthetic, will be diluted and homogenized.   

The issue in Philadelphia is a simple one.  After the Barnes's trust was run into the ground by the (then) Barnes Director Richard Glanton together with Lincoln University trustees (who have had voting rights all along), The Pew and others offered to bail them out, with the intention of moving the Barnes to Downtown Philly.  They were not disinterested bystanders.  They had an agenda with every cent they offered.  It's not a David and Goliath story; rather it is one of theft: Thou Shalt Not Steal!  Barnes' collection was his alone to leave in accordance with his educational vision.  If you can't abide by his decision, you should go somewhere else.     

But don't just take my word on it.  Read the journalistic account of this sordid affair reported by both the art and music critics, Edward Sozanski and Peter Dobrin of The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday.  If you're still not convinced, take a look at Robert Zaller's article which discusses the financial implications of saddling the City with an enormously expensive museum while detailing the many legal and financial steps taken by the local county to keep the Barnes in Merion, PA (rezoning to allow up to 150,000 visitors per year, a 50 million dollar bond-leaseback available immediately).  But if you want a taste of the corporate party line, there's the sole holdout, Bernard C. Watson, Chairman and CEO of the Barnes Foundation.  He cloaks his arguments in those of the court and if you can believe that Dr. Barnes anticipated a move to Philadelphia and was eager to have the collection exposed to a greater number of people, you might buy his reasoning.  I don't; it's reductio ad absurdum.  Leaving aside the fact that the legal system favors eminent domain in almost all instances, this case is overseen by The Orphan's Court.  What level of jurisprudence do you think resides there?  Also, whose side do you think had more resources to win the legal battle of attrition?  Mr. Watson finds the film advocates a "grand conspiracy theory," in fact, a long-range strategy of the movers and shakers to relocate the collection would be more descriptive of what transpired.  These trust-busters weren't offering a dime if the museum stayed put.   

Mr. Kennicott is reluctant to challenge his main source at any time in the article (she wouldn't provide her e-mails with the filmmaker).  It's interesting to note that The Pew changed from a foundation to a non-profit in 2004, allowing them to raise funds and allot up to five percent of their budget to lobby the public sector, which explains their presence in DC.  This permitted them to freely pursue their agenda of moving the Barnes and gain the type of favorable press coverage displayed in The Post's article.  The Pew essentially supports documentaries about maintaining the status quo.  Now when an upstart operation, begins to operate in their vested domain (without their support), they take umbrage. 

What this film is doing is a public service.  If Mr. Kennicott thinks there is a fascinating test case about The Pew or other public organizations whose reach and influence exceeds their grasp  - perhaps he might turn attention to his own newspaper - say the 50 most popular articles (you choose!) and subject them to a rigorous analysis.  

I'm looking forward to seeing the film when it opens here the Friday after next.  Maybe I'll like it and maybe I won't.  But all the publicity that's being given should bring the transparency Ms. Rimel desires, but also the crowds who have not yet seen the film.  Be careful for what you ask for - and hey, maybe I'll run into Phil!  

© March 8, 2010 by John F. Glass ... All rights reserved