This week, some of MCF’s staff went to see The Art of the Steal, a film documenting the fight over The Barnes Foundation and its $25 billion collection of post-Impressionist and early Modernist art. This private collection includes seminal works by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet and Van Gogh, but this isn’t a movie about art.
It’s about governance, transparency, donor intent and the interpretation of these principles by people who are entrusted to act in the best interest of the foundation.
Over his lifetime, Dr. Albert Barnes amassed an incredible collection of art at his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, unrivaled by many of the large, prestigious art museums in the United States, including the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art. But Barnes did not amass this collection to be viewed extensively by the general public; he established the foundation to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.”
First and foremost, Barnes thought of his foundation as a school for artists, a place where sincere students could view important and influential works of art away from the tourism of art museums. Henri Matisse said the Barnes Foundation is “the only sane place to see art in America.” Barnes was explicit in his trust documents that the collection should not be sold, moved, or loaned for any purpose, unless those demands became unreasonable or impossible due to unforeseen circumstances.
Therein lies the crux of the struggle to control the Barnes collection. While Barnes loyalists say that to remove the collection at all would be a direct contradiction to Barnes’ original intent, several powerful people and institutions in Philadelphia, including the former Governor of Pennsylvania, several well-known philanthropists, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have vied to move the collection to Philadelphia, where it would be more accessible to the general public (and a huge tourist attraction for the city.) They claim that The Barnes Foundation is financially unstable and has no other choice but to move the collection. The film chronicles this fight, leading up to the dramatic decision as to the future of the foundation.
The Art of the Steal is definitely a movie with an agenda and a point of view (read this New York Times article for a full review of the film). Funded and produced by several former students and teachers of the Barnes, the film is one-sided and paints the other side in an unflattering light. Many of the people that the film accuses refused to participate in the movie, but some have made statements in response to the movie, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and Bernard Watson, chairman of the Barnes Foundation board of trustees.
No matter on which side of this argument you fall, The Art of the Steal provides an excellent case study on the topic of ethics. Whether you have heard of this controversy before or not, you will walk away from the movie questioning how people can ensure that foundations and nonprofits maintain accountability with the public and whether a controversy like this could have been avoided.
At the Minnesota Council on Foundations, our members created, endorsed, and do their work by the Principles for Grantmakers & Practice Options for Philanthropic Organizations to prevent situations like this from happening. Updated in 2009, the Principles are a how-to of principled philanthropy. Not only do they outline what philanthropic organizations are legally required to do, the Principles are also aspirational, encouraging foundations to reach for more than what the law says is necessary. All MCF members are required to subscribe to the Principles. In the preamble of the Principles, it reads:
“We acknowledge the fundamental roles and responsibilities of engaged individuals and the public, private and nonprofit sectors in a just and equitable society. As a community of grantmakers, we embrace philanthropy’s role in a civil society.”
It is controversies like the one depicted in The Art of the Steal that remind those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors that we must work daily to uphold the public trust. We must take responsibility for the privilege of sustaining a just and equitable society. We must respect and honor the people who turn to our organizations in search of support and guidance. And we must appreciate the opportunity to assess ourselves against written and unwritten standards of ethical principles and practice, and value the chance to reach for a higher standard.
The Art of the Steal is playing now at the Landmark Edina Cinema.
- Stephanie Jacobs, MCF member services manager