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“The Art of the Steal”: Barnes Documentary’s Gaffes and Gaps

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Director Don Argott, left, and executive producer Lenny Feinberg, right, discussing “The Art of the Steal” after its screening at the New York Film Festival

With today’s commercial opening of Don Argott‘s much anticipated documentary examining the upcoming relocation of the Barnes Foundation from Merion to Philadelphia, it’s time for CultureGrrl‘s two-part movie review. (Carrie Rickey‘s astute assessment in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer is here; Manhola Dargis‘s appraisal in todays NY Times is here.)

I’ve now seen the fervid and flawed Art of the Steal twice. I needed the second viewing to get over my gut reaction to the first and begin to appreciate the constructive indignation that its tabloid approach may be able to ignite among less knowledgeable audiences. I believe, though, that a better informed, more resourceful filmmaker might have made the case against moving the Barnes Foundation more forcefully, if less sensationally.

As a journalist who deplores the move and has covered from the beginning the attempts by Philadelphia’s movers-and-shakers to pry loose the celebrated collection from Merion, PA (where founder Albert Barnes had stipulated it was to remain), I was put off, during my first viewing, by the film’s glaring gaffes and omissions, not to mention its overheated rhetoric.

The distortions start with the film’s title (previously used by author Christopher Mason for his 2004 book about the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing scandal). No Barnes masterpieces have been “stolen,” let alone “sold” (as the poster for the movie seems to suggest). There was no “heist.”

As the Barnes’ newly appointed general counsel, Brett Miller, has recently argued in his published rebuttal to an attack in the Art Newspaper by dealer Richard Feigen (who appears in the movie), the relocation is no “kidnapping”; it was engineered with court approval. That said, I firmly believe (as I will later explain) that the December 2004 court decision, handed down by a widely respected judge, involved a serious miscarriage of justice.

This intrastate transport of masterpieces is surely not “the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II.” Nor was philanthropist Ray Perelman (whose offense was suggesting to the Governor that moving the Barnes might be good for Philly) the nefarious monster he is made out to be in an astonishing segment where a reporter who had previously been chewed out by Perelman settles this score, vituperatively, on camera.

Perhaps the best metaphor for what happened to the Barnes is “takeover”: The institution fell into stronger hands after being seriously vitiated by mismanagement and further endangered by the then-hostile neighbors who, paradoxically, are now leading the charge to keep it in Merion.

In the old days, these same “Friends of the Barnes,” inconvenienced by invading crowds and vehicular incursions, were the foundation’s harshest critics, opposing any increases in public hours that might have yielded additional income for the financially strapped facility. When the neighbors, the township and the county finally awakened to the value of what they were about to lose, the actions they took (allowing more visitation, offering to float a $50-million bond issue, trying unsuccessfully to reopen the court case) were too little, too late.

The film’s most obvious omission, which director Don Argott has freely acknowledged, both in the film itself and in interviews, was its failure to get the principal figures supporting the move (with two key exceptions) to participate. It seems that they expected a hatchet job.

Argott disingenuously told Eric Kohn of the Wall Street Journal that he “went into this with a blank slate,” when in fact he received his assignment from executive producer Lenny Feinberg, a real estate investor from a Philadelphia suburb and a former Barnes Foundation student, who made it clear during the post-screening discussion on stage at the New York Film Festival that he was always intent on an exposé.

Feinberg said this [via] to Sam Adams of Philadelphia City Paper:

I made it clear with the filmmakers in interviews that I would be hands-on in every aspect, which is just the way I felt about this story. I wasn’t just the guy who was writing a check. I know that’s not the way it’s normally done, but I didn’t give a damn. Don said, “Hey, man, it’s your money. You can do whatever you want.” Other people just wanted me to fund them and go away.

Nonetheless, Argott is quoted by the NY TimesConstance Rosenblum, as saying, “We never set out to make an agenda piece.” It appears that the Barnes’ president and executive director, Derek Gillman, correctly thought otherwise. He said this to Rosenblum about the film:

It was made by people who were hostile to the move and very angry about it. That’s why we didn’t cooperate with the filmmakers. It was not in our interests to do so.

I have to say this for Gillman and the rest of the Barnes crew: I’m also “hostile to the move,” but (I’d like to believe) my journalistic approach is reasoned, not “angry.” (It’s more a combination of sorrow and, as you will see in Part Two of this review, righteous indignation.) The Barnes brass still do talk to me, even knowing my opposition to what they’re doing. Reasonable people can disagree.

But back to the film’s gaffes and omissions:

—Whatever you want to say about Moses and Walter Annenberg, they were not “WASPs,” as the movie seems to suggest.

—The always voluble former president of the Barnes, Richard Glanton, gets lots of face time in the movie, but his successor, Kimberly Camp, is not heard from, nor do we know if the filmmakers ever attempted to contact her (or even know that she exists).

—The disgraced former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Barry Munitz, who pops up a couple of times in the film, is a bizarre choice as a go-to person for an authoritative statement on anything.

—The van Gogh painting at Sotheby’s that dealer Richard Feigen dismisses on camera as not up the the quality level of the Barnes (which, in fact, does display a large number of mediocrities, as well as masterpieces) did not exceed its presale estimate, as Feigen confidently predicted; it drew no apparent bidders and famously failed to sell.

The strangest gaffe is the film’s heavy reliance on Mark Schwartz for elucidiation of the legal case. Schwartz is identified in the film as an attorney for Montgomery County and the Friends of the Barnes. Unmentioned in the film (and perhaps unknown to Argott) is that both the County and the Friends got Schwartz off the case early—a result of various missteps (including arguments in court that provoked the judge to admonish him), as well as a payment dispute.

These goofs demonstate that, in one sense, Argott really was, as he described himself, “a blank slate”: Don has publicly admitted that until he was tapped by Feinberg, he was one of the many Philadelphians who had never set foot in the Barnes.

Nevertheless, he did manage to assemble many highly knowledgeable, level-headed commentators to contribute their insights to the film—LA Times art critic Christopher Knight; former Smithsonian assistant secretary Tom Freudenheim; and most notably—civil rights activist Julian Bond, whose father Horace Mann Bond, former president of Lincoln University, was a close friend of Albert Barnes; and author John Anderson, who, in 2003, published the definitive book chronicling the Barnes story, ending at the time when Judge Stanley Ott of Montgomery County Orphans’ Court announced that he would hold hearings on the proposed move.

Although Argott tapped these reliable, convincing sources, he apparently lacked a consultant with full knowledge of the saga to go over the entire film, saving him from the mistakes and missteps that undermine what he was trying to achieve.

That said, I’m a tough critic when it comes to accuracy. The film may have the beneficial effect of swaying general public opinion, despite its omissions and mistakes. Unfortunately, though, like the other recent efforts to save the Barnes, this film’s impact is likely to be too little, too late.

COMING SOON: The miscarriage of justice (ignored by the film) that green-lighted the Barnes move. Also, the film’s smoking-gun revelation. [UPDATE: Part II of this review is here.]

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