New Barnes documentary focuses on the art collector not the controversy

“Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books, and infinitely moreso than very nice people.”


So wrote Dr. Albert Barnes in a letter, which will be featured in a new documentary film about his paintings.

“The Barnes Collection,” a production of WHYY, will be broadcast Aug. 3 as part of PBS Arts Summer Festival. The film focuses on the period before Barnes created his foundation in1922, as he began to amass his collection of Impressionist paintings.

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There are very few recordings of Barnes on film or tape. The film relies heavily on letters in which he fearlessly argued against critics of what was a new and progressive art movement.

“The letters reveal him not as a fearful man, but quite interesting — I think — as a person who was quite lonely,” said filmmaker Glenn Holsten. “He talks about himself and his collection a lot. He doesn’t talk about any other relationships — including one with his wife, although they had a relationship and they stayed married.”

The film will not address the controversial move from Lower Merion to the Parkway, which generated mountains of opinion and was the subject of “The Art of the Steal” (2009).

“I think ‘Art of the Steal’ did a really good job telling that controversy story. So I don’t feel that I have to tell it,” said Holsten. “I feel this corner of his life has not been told yet — not really a corner, a chapter.”

Holsten used Barnes’ letters, read by actor David Morse, as the backbone of the story –there is no other narrative voice in the film. The Barnes Foundation gave Holsten extensive access to its archives.

“As somebody who runs a not-for-profit, which is about information as well as aesthetic pleasure, there’s an obligation to give information,” said Derek Gillman, president of the Barnes Foundation. “This is a way of doing that.”

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