In the documentary The Art of the Steal, Philadelphia filmmaker Don Argott chronicles the controversy surrounding the world-renowned Barnes Foundation art collection, which is set to be transplanted to Philly's downtown area.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Unless some kind of miracle presents itself, the $25 billion collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art long housed at the world-famous Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pa. will be moved to a new site along Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway by 2012. The relocation comes to the grievous dismay of a who's who of art connoisseurs and former students of the foundation, and it certainly doesn't mesh with the wishes of founder and collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, whose will states that the art never be moved or even loaned, and that the foundation always remain an educational institution.
According to the highly involved and involving documentary The Art of the Steal, which charts the epic, in-depth history of the Barnes and the messy struggle over the control of its incredible art, the movement of the collection is the result of a complex conspiracy – a cloak-and-dagger act of power- and money-driven thievery involving seemingly upstanding organizations like The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Annenberg Foundation, and, to a lesser but still instrumental degree, politicians like former Philly mayor John Street and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
However much of the film is factual, it presents one convincing and provocative case, and its director, Don Argott (Rock School), turns a relatively weak-sounding central argument (“Will a man's will be broken?”) into a fascinating, sophisticated and, at times, downright infuriating look at the not-so-beautiful side of the art world, and a group of very un-Hollywood underdogs (the won't-back-down-without-a-fight former students) who likely won't be coming out on top. The volume of data Argott yielded is considerable, as is his roster of interview subjects, which also includes such standouts as John Anderson, author of “Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Foundation,” and Richard Glanton, a polarizing figure and former president of the Barnes.
Best of all, The Art of the Steal is staged like a paranoid thriller, its visual, aural and narrative design chugging along with the pulse-quickening momentum of a good detective yarn.
Argott, who developed the film with his producer partner, Sheena Joyce, under the pair's own 9.14 Pictures, says he walked into this project knowing he might make a few enemies. In a recent interview, the 37-year-old Philadelphian discusses what it was like to cast a shameful cloud over his hometown, who the real star of the movie is, the highlights of what he included and the disappointments over what he didn't.
R. Kurt Osenlund: How interested were you in fine art before taking on this project?
Don Argott: Fine art? I'm a huge Salvador Dali fan, but in terms of the kind of work that's at the Barnes Foundation, that's not necessarily my cup of tea.
R.K.O.: There's an extraordinary amount of information in this film. How long did the research process take?
D.A.: It was kind of concurrent with making the film. It wasn't like there was a research part and then we started. I mean, we did a lot of research prior to shooting, but once we got underway in production, we continued with the research. Certainly we wanted to be as prepared as possible for the people we were interviewing, so we'd do extensive amounts of research on them, but it was pretty concurrent with us doing the film. Once we'd dive into certain aspects of the story, we'd learn a lot from a particular interview, and that would take us in another direction. So it was a very organic process in terms of the research.
R.K.O.: What was the most fascinating part of that process?
D.A.: The Glanton era is, to me, really where the story gets very interesting. So much, probably, because Richard is such an amazing character who has a big ego, as well as his own feelings about the Barnes Foundation and what he felt was the best thing for it. I think that era marked the beginning of the end, really, and it showed how much of a circus the whole story would become. There are so many amazing things that happened in that era.
R.K.O.: Who is your favorite character in the film? Glanton?
D.A.: Albert Barnes. Absolutely. It's interesting because, when we started, we really felt that we were going to be making a mostly historical documentary, highlighting what had happened at the foundation for the past 50, 60 years. It wasn't until we got into the editing room and started crafting it that Albert Barnes emerged as our character. It was a revelation because, at that point, we found that he's who you want to root for, not the Friends of the Barnes, necessarily. Albert Barnes wrote the script – the script is his will, and we basically tried to highlight the things that were important to him, and to see the film through his eyes. And hopefully we succeeded in doing that.
R.K.O.: How difficult was it to get all of your interviewees to comment, and who was the most difficult?
D.A.: Everybody was pretty open to participating. I would say Glanton was probably the hardest to get – he needed a little convincing. His tenure [at the Barnes] was a pretty inflammatory time, and he got a lot of the brunt and blame for a lot of the things that happened subsequent to him leaving. Everybody else was pretty easy to get – the people that we did interview.
R.K.O.: Of the individuals who declined comment, like chairman of the Barnes Foundation Board of Trustees Bernard Watson and Pew Charitable Trusts president and CEO Rebecca Rimel, who were you most disappointed about not being able to interview?
D.A.: All of them, frankly. The Barnes Foundation was quite difficult. First and foremost, not being able to shoot inside the gallery was the most disappointing thing for me as a filmmaker – not being able to bring our cameras in there and shoot it the way we wanted to shoot it. And certainly anybody from the Barnes Foundation would have been amazing to talk to, to be able to ask some of the difficult questions that I think are still floating out there. It's disappointing, and then the frustrating part is we've heard the film referred to as being “one-sided.” Well, how can it be two-sided if we can only get one side to talk to us?
R.K.O.: Of the villains, so to speak, who you did interview, such as, say, Gov. Ed Rendell, did you get the sense they knew they were doing something wrong?
D.A.: I wouldn't categorize Ed Rendell and [former Pa. attorney general] Mike Fisher as villains, honestly. I think they just have a different point of view of this thing, and they show you what the film could have been a little bit more of, frankly. Specifically, with Rendell, I don't think he thought he did anything wrong. I think to him this is politics as usual, this is how things happen.
R.K.O.: Eventually, when Rendell started discussing the benefits of moving the art downtown, I surely began to see the logic in his point of view, after having sympathized with the Friends of the Barnes. Did you intend to create those kind of conflicted feelings in the viewer?
D.A.: Yeah, absolutely, and frankly, I wish the film had more of that. I don't think there's a question about whether [the Barnes art] would be great for the city of Philadelphia. But then, what you have to come back to is, it kind of is in the city of Philadelphia. If you're from New York, or Europe, you know, there's no Merion International Airport. You're going to fly into Philadelphia to see the collection. You're probably going to go to the Art Museum and other places in the city, and then go out to Merion to see the Barnes Foundation. And that's what's important: it's not impossible to get into. It's not as accessible as a lot of people would like it to be, but I think that plays into the idea in our culture of how people don't have to look for anything anymore. The Barnes requires a little bit of effort, but that doesn't mean it should be totally dismantled and reimagined as something else.
R.K.O.: The film basically villainizes Philadelphia – the city in which you live. Did you have any trepidations about that?
D.A.: Yes and no. When you set out to make a film, you kind of can't worry about those things. There's that section in the film about fear, about how you can't criticize these people because of what they're capable of doing. What kind of a world is it when we can't criticize people who should be criticized for doing something we feel is wrong? As bad as the city of Philadelphia comes across, I love it here, I love this city. And the Pew [Charitable Trusts] and the Annenberg Foundation, they do a lot of great things, and I'm not saying they don't. But I do think it's difficult when people feel like they can't criticize them because they do so many amazing things. Once we committed to making the film, we had to do it the way we felt was best to get the information across, and not worry about who we were going to upset in the process.
R.K.O.: The clincher, for me, was when the layers really started to peel away and the sheer depth of the whole conspiracy aspect really started to reveal itself. When did you know you wanted to not just present this conspiracy, but also design the film as a sort of conspiratorial thriller?
D.A.: I think it's the best structural way to present the information. Everything in filmmaking is figuring out when to give the audience the information. So with a story like this, where there's so much information, and there's one thing leading to another and then another, it's just the right way to present it. I didn't appreciate it until audiences started to respond, saying the film plays like a whodunit. I was certainly conscious of it in terms of putting the film together, but you always wonder if the masses are going to see the same thing you see. I think [the conspiracy angle] has helped us to break outside of the documentary/art world crowd.
A former student of the Barnes protests the move.
R.K.O.: There are a lot of bold statements made in the film by interviewees. To cite a few: “The single most important cultural monument of the 20th century,” “The greatest act of cultural violence since World War II,” and “The scandal of the art world in modern America.” Do you believe all of these statements to be true, or did you find it's not a matter of believing, that it's simply fact?
D.A.: I think it's somewhere in the middle. Part of the way we make documentaries is we purposely don't have narrators. There's no imposing voice of what we want you to feel. The people we chose to interview for the film, the people who made those statements, are those who are intimately involved in as many aspects of the story as possible. We didn't want people who were just on the fringes and kind of had an opinion about it, we wanted people like [Los Angles Times art critic] Christopher Knight, who's been writing about [the Barnes] for years. People like [NAACP Chairman of the Board] Julian Bond, who knew Albert Barnes when he was a child. They are pretty bold statements, and I certainly agree with them, but it's not really for me to make that judgment call.
R.K.O.: What was the most rewarding experience for you during the process of making the film?
D.A.: I gotta go with the standing ovation we got at the Toronto International Film Festival. There were all these little victories leading up to that (finishing the film, getting it into Toronto), but there's so much anticipation with that first screening. It's your first time putting your baby out there to the world, and you don't know how people are going to react to it – if they're going to respond to it, if they're going to think it's interesting or boring. And at that first screening, once the credits came on, people stood up and cheered. I was like, “Jesus!” I had no idea that it would elicit that kind of reaction. That one singular moment was a huge victory for me – and it took place on my birthday, Sept. 14, so it had even more significance.
R.K.O.: Apart from telling the story, what do you think or hope this movie will accomplish? Is it possible for the decision to move the Barnes art to be reversed?
D.A.: You know, I don't know. People have asked me that, and I always say that was never the intention to make the movie. There was no hidden agenda in making the movie of trying to stop the move from happening. I'd be lying if I told you that it wouldn't make me feel good if the move wasn't happening as a result of the film, but that's certainly not the intention. And to think that the film has any hope of stopping this kind of snowball rolling down a hill is a pretty lofty thing to wish for. But what's been cool in doing all these festivals and showing it to audiences is it opens up a dialogue, and I think it's an important dialogue to have no matter what happens. People finally get to know the story, and know what went on, and people who are on the other side of it, who didn't want to talk when we were making the film, are going to be forced to answer some hard questions. And, frankly, they're questions I want to know the answers to.
*This article was published in the April 2010 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.