Albert Barnes made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, and spent it acquiring a massive art collection. He specified that his collection — which includes dozens of works by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse — should stay forever in Lower Merion, just outside Philadelphia.
Albert Barnes made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, and spent it acquiring a massive art collection. He specified that his collection — which includes dozens of works by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse — should stay forever in Lower Merion, just outside Philadelphia. IFC Films
Depending on whom you ask, The Art of the Steal is either a searing expose about the biggest art heist of the young century, or two hours of half-baked conspiracy theories. The new documentary explores the controversial plan to move the Barnes Foundation's $25 billion collection of modernist and post-impressionist art from its longtime home in the Philadelphia suburbs to a new downtown gallery — against the wishes of its founder.
But Barnes Foundation officials and their backers have questions of their own about the film's objectivity and its retelling of what the film presents as "THE scandal of the art world in modern America."
"We didn't go in with an agenda," says director Don Argott. "We wanted to tell the story from the ground up, which is what we did."
Argott, best known for his documentary Rock School, says he'd never even visited the Barnes Foundation before he started working on this film. Sheena Joyce, producer of The Art of the Steal, says they tried to tell the Barnes story through the eyes of its founder, Albert Barnes.
"It's not our story, it's his story," Joyce says. "He left an indenture of trust. And that was the blueprint. It was important to bring him to life and tell the story as he would want it told."
MAJ Productions/IFC Films
Nick Tinari protests the proposed new downtown Philadelphia location of The Barnes Foundation.
Nick Tinari protests the proposed new downtown Philadelphia location of The Barnes Foundation. MAJ Productions/IFC Films
Barnes was very particular — especially about his art. He made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, and spent it on a collection that includes dozens of works by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse. Barnes specified in his indenture that the art should stay forever in Lower Merion, just outside Philadelphia. But by the end of the 20th century, the Barnes Foundation was nearly broke. And its board made the controversial decision to move the art collection to downtown Philadelphia.
The filmmakers use archival footage, dozens of interviews and news clips from reporters (myself included) to tell the story. But they got no help from the Barnes Foundation itself.
"It was very clear it wasn't going to be fair and balanced. As indeed it isn't," says Derek Gillman, the Barnes Foundation's current president. "And I think had we participated, it's pretty obvious from the title that it wouldn't have been anyway."
Gillman says he knew the film would be biased because of its executive producer, real estate developer Lenny Feinberg. Feinberg took classes at the Barnes in the 1990s, and put up all of the cash to fund the film.
"I had an agenda in that I thought it was wrong to move the Barnes Foundation, and I told Don and Sheena that," Feinberg says.
D. Mason Bendewald/IFC Films
"We didn't go in with an agenda," says Art of the Steal director Don Argott. "We wanted to tell the story from the ground up, which is what we did."
"We didn't go in with an agenda," says Art of the Steal director Don Argott. "We wanted to tell the story from the ground up, which is what we did." D. Mason Bendewald/IFC Films
But Feinberg insists he didn't tell the filmmakers how to do their jobs.
"I tried to stay out of the way," he says. "The story just took the steps it took. What is on the film is what happened."
What happened, in the film's telling, is a plot hatched in the mid-'90s by local politicians and power brokers to break Barnes' trust and move his collection to downtown Philadelphia, where they hope it will be a major tourist draw. In the film, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell calls the move a "no-brainer."
"There isn't a couple in the U.S., or Europe, or Asia who's interested in arts and culture, who wouldn't come to Philadelphia for at least a long weekend" — if only the Barnes collection came to the city, Rendell says.
"It's fair to say there was a vast conspiracy to move the Barnes," says author John Anderson.
Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight describes the move as a takeover:
"Foundations are nonprofit corporations," Knight says. "We're used to hearing about corporate takeovers with for-profit corporations. But this was a nonprofit corporate takeover."
Not everyone sees it that way, though, including Rebecca Rimel, CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts. She thinks the whole story's been dramatized to make it a better movie.
"Anytime you sensationalize something and imply that there's a conspiracy and that someone stole tens of billions of dollars, that would be enough to get anybody to go see a film," Rimel says. "That sounds like a pretty good plot. It just turns out that it's all fiction."
Pew is one of three philanthropies raising $200 million for the move. (Pew is also an NPR financial supporter and partner.) Rimel says the Barnes Foundation came to her looking for help — end of story.
If there was a far-reaching conspiracy to move the Barnes, former foundation president Kimberly Camp says the board never told her about it. But then again, Camp says she had a very difficult time raising money to preserve the foundation in Merion.
"Were there things in motion I was not aware of? It's highly possible," Camp says. "We were getting support more from outside Philadelphia than we were from the city itself. Anyone could speculate. Private foundations give money to whom they choose."
Both Camp and Rimel declined invitations to appear in The Art of the Steal. Feinberg says the Barnes and its backers probably expected the film to disappear without a ripple. It hasn't. Even Feinberg says he's been stunned by the reception the movie has gotten from audiences at major film festivals in Toronto, New York and elsewhere.
"[We had] no idea we would ever be where we are today," he says. "Everywhere we go, there's lines of people. We've not had a Q&A session where they haven't had to throw us out, because it went on too long."
Expect the film to provoke more passionate debate, when it begins theatrical runs in Philadelphia and New York on Friday.