Matisse called the Barnes Foundation "the only sane place to see art in America." But the clamor over moving one of the world's foremost collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art from its small, intimate home in the bucolic suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania, to center-city Philadelphia (4.6 miles away), has been anything but reasonable. Unapologetically on the side of those who oppose the relocation (executive producer Lenny Feinberg is, like many of the doc's impassioned interlocutors, a former student of the Barnes Foundation), The Art of the Steal presents its aesthetes versus Phila-stines argument cogently and engagingly. Director/cinematographer Don Argott digs deep to recount the struggle for control of this legendary institution, founded by cranky, liberal physician Albert C. Barnes in 1922 solely for educational purposes. The film makes clear that arguments about the foundation's inaccessibility in Merion are disingenuous at best—that moving the collection to the city represents the triumph of money and power not just over the express wishes of one man, but the public's opportunity to have a singular experience with an astonishing array of art in its original setting. Steal's thorough research makes it one of the most successful advocacy docs in recent years, and may prompt some firsthand investigating of your own.
Barnes and a work from his collection.
Opens at Seven Gables, Fri., March 26. Not rated. 101 minutes.