The Art of the Steal and lessons in philanthropy

I watched The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the Barnes Foundation, possibly the greatest private collection of modern art in the world, last night. It was my fourth time watching it and each time I see it, with a different set of friends, I am reminded of a few lessons in philanthropy. But the central tension seems to be  the public vs. private nature of philanthropy’s impact. While the key tension in The Art of Steal is about the execution of Dr. Barnes’ will – that comprised art work worth over $25-$60 billion, and how the city of Philadelphia, with others managed to ‘steal’ it to put it up in a ‘public’ space where everyone could enjoy it, the question of who does art belong to, what is the nature of philanthropy and who is to benefit from it, comes to the fore. The public nature of philanthropy is evident in this strange and perhaps, sad story. In Julian Bond’s words, this is “the scandal in the art world, of the twentieth century.”art-of-the-steal_970x390

While most scholars and practitioners agree that philanthropy, by its being ‘public’ in orientation – in impacting issues in the public domain – can be problematic. Peter Frumkin, Professor of Nonprofit management at University of Pennsylvania argues that this is precisely why it can be effective. “Indeed, one of the central claims of this book is that the special interaction of private values and public interests in philanthropy is what gives giving its distinctive identity and the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the public sphere,” he says in his book Strategic Giving. Earlier on in the book, Frumkin outlines four positions that philanthropy can take vis-à-vis the government:

  1. Supplementary role – Where if there is overlapping work between the government and private sector, this model would suggest adding funds where the government is falling short
  2. Complementary model – This model envisages division of labor between the parties – government and private sector.
  3. Adversarial model – One in which the private donor/foundation actively takes a position in contrast to that of the government. Think of George Soros in former Soviet Union countries. This position put them in a lot of trouble and effectively got kicked out of Russia, recently.
  4. Autonomous position – Thus taking a position where giving is shielded from government initiatives.

While The Art of Steal does bring up the issues of private wishes of an individual, one question that kept going in my mind was: But isn’t Art supposed to be enjoyed by all and even if it exists in the possession of an individual or an educational institution, should it not be widely available? The counter to that would be that the execution of his will, which stipulated that his art work not be sold, auctioned, rented or otherwise moved, in any way. This may seem a tall order, especially if there are no heirs to this vast wealth and all the trustees of the board can be manipulated or art-twisted. The integrity of one man’s ideas can only last till he is alive or perhaps if he/she has a strong heir who will execute them, after one dies. In the absence of this, there will be manipulation by people, whose interests matter more than the will itself.

photo credit : en.wikipedia.org
photo credit : en.wikipedia.org

This brings us back to the central debates about the private intent of Dr. Barnes, who wished to present his art to the ‘common man’ and not the elite of Philadelphia, versus the contrary claim made by the city of Philadelphia, that argued that since the Art was meant for public consumption and it wasn’t sufficiently being cared for, the city had to step in to take possession of the entire art collection. While the film is definitely made from the perspective of Dr.Barnes and his will, the larger question of the nature of philanthropy and its intended purpose remains (in my understanding) in the grey zone. While the actions of all the officials shown – including those of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mayor of Philadelphia and others seem manipulative, they seem to be genuinely doing what they think is best for the art world. The only problem is that all of this goes against the will of the individual, who owned it. Given how key the notion of private property is to Americans, this is the sin that they commit – trespassing on another man’s will and taking the high moral ground. In this, they also violate the principle of donor intent.

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