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Film review: 'Art of the Steal' looks at collection

Published: Thursday, March 25 2010 2:56 p.m. MDT

THE ART OF THE STEAL — ★★★ — Documentary feature about the Barnes Foundation art collection; not rated, probable R (nude art, profanity, violence, vulgarity, slurs, brief drugs); Broadway Centre

"The Art of the Steal" is ambitious, make no mistake about it.

This documentary about an ongoing American art controversy tries to look at the situation from every angle.

As good as the film is at times, you still wish it were more focused.

Filmmaker Don Argott ("Rock School") tries to do so much, to make this so fact-packed, that some information overload is inevitable.

Still, it is a pretty informative documentary and, as such, it's sure to get at least a few devoted art lovers' blood boiling.

"The Art of the Steal" looks at the Barnes Foundation's collection, a privately held treasure trove of modern and post-Impressionist paintings and other art that has been estimated as being worth as much as $25 billion.

The collection has been at center of the struggle between those who would keep it in private hands and Philadelphia city officials, who wish it to be the centerpiece of that metropolis' new museum project.

By using interviews with past and present Barnes Foundation officials, as well as various Philadelphia leaders, Argott does ensure that the movie is balanced.

He also makes a very strong case that the foundation's creator, philanthropist Albert C. Barnes, never intended for the art to be available for wide public display.

Instead, according to Argott, Barnes wanted it used for limited educational purposes — through accompanying art studies and classes that were originally held at the foundation.

You do wish that Argott would have edited out the "contributions" of at least one pro-Barnes Foundation protester, whose R-rated tirades become tiresome., And, with those profanities excepted, this film could have been seen by a wider audience.

"The Art of the Steal" is not rated but would probably receive an R for glimpses of nude artwork (mostly paintings), scattered strong sexual profanity, violent imagery (including boxing and some warfare, seen in paintings), some suggestive language, derogatory language and slurs, and brief drug content (use of hypodermic needles). Running time: 101 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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