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Art for Art's Sake? A Battle over a Billion-Dollar Collection

By Tom White

Don Argott's The Art of the Steal pits the citizens of Merion, Pennsylvania--home of the magnificent Barnes Collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern paintings--against the power conglomerate of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania government officials, museum trustees and foundation heads in a struggle for control of the Collection. Argott manages to secure players from both sides of the conflict to talk on camera--except for anyone from the Barnes Foundation itself, or from the Pew Charitable Foundation, which led the charge to move the collection--as well as art critics, curators, journalists and artists who taught at the school that Dr. Albert Barnes had built for the study of his collection. While Barnes was prescient enough in his tastes to answer the question, Who gets to call it art?, when the Philadelphia tastemakers declined to do so 80 years ago, it's the Philly power block that insists on declaring who gets to see art today.

The Art of the Steal had its world premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, then screened at the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest. Reviews have been strong, as have reactions-charges of bias have been leveled at Argott, and post-screening discussions have been heated. The film, distributed by IFC Films, opened February 26 in New York and Philadelphia and opens Friday, March 12, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC, and will continue to roll out to markets across the country.  We caught up with Argott by e-mail as he was preparing for his LA debut



Dr. Albert Barnes, whose collection is subject of Don Argott's The Art of the Steal (Prod.: Sheena M. Joyce). Courtesy of IFC Films

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Don Argott: I went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia, which had a program called "Music Video Business." It was basically an all-hands-on approach. We used cameras, lights, editing equipment and audio right away. I just took to it and was able early on to feel confident about what I was doing. It was from that that I realized that you didn't need a big crew and big budget to tell a compelling story. From that point on, I found a few people who shared my enthusiasm, and we just went for it and never looked back.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Art of the Steal?

DA: This project came to us from Lenny Feinberg, who served as the executive producer on the film. He had a history with the Barnes Foundation; he took classes there about 20 years ago, and he had been following the saga since then. I had no prior knowledge of the story, and I think that served the project really well. We didn't enter into it with a bias or agenda, but ultimately the film does take on a strong point of view.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

DA: I think the biggest challenge in any documentary is access. We set out to tell this story from all sides, and what we encountered was a lot of resistance from the Barnes side, which is ironic, since you would think that they would want to speak on behalf of Albert Barnes. We did our research and the facts are the facts. We were very careful not to include things in the film that we couldn't back up. It's been interesting since the film came out that the other side has cried out saying that the film is filled with baseless facts and allegations, yet they haven't pointed out one thing that's factual incorrect.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

DA: Doing a documentary is like taking a journey. You are constantly learning and discovering new things that continue to shape the film. I think the pleasant surprise with this film is that we were able to bring Albert Barnes back to life. We are used to doing character-driven pieces, and this was somewhat of a departure for us because it had a lot of historical elements to it. But as we were putting the film together and happened to get the old film footage of Albert Barnes, the film took a turn. Suddenly there were real emotional stakes to the film; it humanizes Barnes and it allows you to identify with a person, not just a building filled with great art.

 IDA: As you've screened The Art of the Steal--whether on the festivalcircuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

DA: The response has been overwhelming. We were very fortunate to have one of the breakout films at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then it screened to a sold-out crowd at Alice Tully Hall for the New York Film Festival. Wherever we go the response is electric. We can pretty much guarantee a lively debate and spirited discussion. The most surprising thing is the backlash we've gotten in the Philadelphia press. There were a handful of positive articles early on, but the press has been a bit more biased since the release of the film. Not surprisingly, elsewhere in the country it's been a totally different story. I think the problem with telling a controversial local story is that everyone brings baggage into the film, as opposed to being able to watch it a bit more objectively.


Don Argott, director of The Art of the Steal. Courtesy of IFC Films



IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

DA: I really loved American Movie. To me, that opened up a whole world that docs could be entertaining, I remember seeing Metallica: Some Kind of Monster for the first time, and I didn't want it to end. As for docmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfosky, Chris Smith, Errol Morris, Albert and David Maysles and Barbara Kopple.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.