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The Barnes Foundation and its $25 billion art collection are the subject of a new film opening this weekend. The documentary called "The Art of the Steal" raises some provocative questions about a plan to move the collection from its home in the Philadelphia suburbs to a new downtown gallery. But Barnes Foundation officials and their backers have questions of their own about the film's objectivity, as Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Depending on your point of view, "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. Former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, whose father knew the Barnes Foundation's creator, opens the film like this.

(Soundbite of film, "The Art of the Steal")

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Former NAACP Chairman): This is the scandal of the art world in modern America.

Mr. DON ARGOTT (Director, "The Art of the Steal"): We didn't go in with an agenda. We really wanted to tell this story from the ground up, which is what we did.

ROSE: Director Don Argott, best known for his documentary "Rock School," says he'd never even visited the Barnes Foundation before he started working on this film. Producer Sheena Joyce says they tried to tell the Barnes' story through the eyes of its founder, Albert Barnes.

Ms. SHEENA JOYCE (Producer, "The Art of the Steal"): It's not our story, it's his story. He left an indenture of trust and in a sense that was our blueprint. But it was important for us to make him the main character and bring him to life for the viewer and tell the story as we thought he would want it told.

ROSE: Albert Barnes was very particular, especially about his art. He made a fortune in pharmaceuticals and spent it on a collection that includes dozens of Renoirs, Cezannes and Matisses. Barnes specified in his indenture that the art should stay forever in the 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, including me, to tell the story.

(Soundbite of film, "The Art of the Steal")

ROSE: Since it's prohibited from selling any of the works hanging in its Lower Merion gallery, it asked for a court's permission to move the art.

But they got no help from the Barnes Foundation itself. Derek Gillman is the foundation's current president.

Mr. DEREK GILLMAN (President, Barnes Foundation): It was very clear it wasn't going to be fair and balanced. Had we participated, it's pretty obvious from the title and indeed the thrust of movie that it wouldn't have been anyway, as indeed it didn't.

ROSE: Gillman says he knew the film would be biased because of its executive producer.

Mr. LENNY FEINBERG (Executive Producer, "The Art of the Steal"): I admittedly had an agenda in that I thought it was wrong to move the Barnes Foundation and I told Don and Sheena that.

ROSE: Lenny Feinberg is a real estate developer who took classes at the Barnes in the 1990s and put up all of the cash to fund the film. But Feinberg insists he didn't tell the filmmakers how to do their jobs.

Mr. FEINBERG: I tried to stay out of the way. I was involved. But, you know, the story just took the steps it took. What is on the film is what happened.

ROSE: What happened in this telling is a plot hatched in the mid '90s by local politicians and powerbrokers to break Dr. Barnes' trust and move his collection to downtown Philadelphia, where they hope it will be a major tourist draw. In the film, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell calls the move a, quote, "no-brainer."

(Soundbite of film, "The Art of the Steal")

Governor ED RENDELL (Pennsylvania): If you were to add the Barnes to the Parkway, there isn't a couple in the United States, or in Europe or Asia who's interested in arts and culture, who wouldn't come to Philadelphia for at least a long weekend.

ROSE: Here's how author John Anderson and Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight describe the move.

(Soundbite of film, "The Art of the Steal")

Mr. JOHN ANDERSON (Author): It's fair to say there was a vast conspiracy to move the Barnes. This obviously involved the three lead foundations, the politicians.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT (Art Critic, Los Angeles Times): Foundations are nonprofit corporations. We're used to hearing about corporate takeovers with for-profit corporations, but this was a nonprofit corporate takeover.

ROSE: Not everyone sees it that way. Rebecca Rimel is CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Ms. REBECCA RIMEL (CEO, Pew Charitable Trusts): Anytime you sensationalize something and imply that there's a conspiracy and that someone stole tens of billions of dollars, I mean, that would be enough to probably get anybody to go see a film. That sounds like a pretty good plot. It just turns out that it's all fiction.

ROSE: Pew is one of three philanthropies that are 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.

Ms. KIMBERLY CAMP (Former President, Barnes Foundation): Were there things in motion that I was not aware of? It's highly possible. We were getting support more from outside of Philadelphia than we were in the city itself. Reasons for that, I mean, anyone could speculate. Private foundations give money to whom they choose.

ROSE: Both Camp and Rimel declined invitations to appear in "The Art of the Steal." Executive producer Lenny Feinberg says the Barnes and its backers probably expected the film to disappear without a ripple. It hasn't. Even Feinberg says he's surprised at the reception the movie has gotten from audiences at major film festivals in Toronto, New York and elsewhere.

Mr. FEINBERG: Stunning. I had no idea we would ever be where we are today. Around the country, everywhere we go, I mean, there's just lines of people. And after the film, we have not had a Q&A session where they haven't had to throw us out because it went on too long.

ROSE: Expect the film to provoke more passionate debate when it begins theatrical runs in Philadelphia and New York tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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