Don Argott & The Art Of The Steal

art_ofSounds like a caper film from the distant past. An international production, perhaps, starring the likes of Michael Caine, Lino Ventura and Claudia Cardinale, in which a group of cons with distinctively different backgrounds team together to rip off some priceless art from a highly secure gallery. Or, maybe a tautly wound French film in black-and-white directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and boasting Alain Delon as the dashing lead thief.

Well, The Art of the Steal is a caper film, but what makes it unusual is that it is true. It’s actually a documentary that’s every bit as tension-filled and entertaining as the aforementioned fictional films. But this caper stars a bunch of politicians, a state governor, an eccentric millionaire, opportunists who look to forward their careers and powerful philanthropists. At stake?  No less than billions of dollars worth of artwork by the likes of Matisse, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso.

The Art of the Steal centers on the struggle over the Barnes Foundation, the amazing collection of paintings amassed by Dr. Albert Barnes, a physician who invented an anti-venereal disease formula that made him a millionaire. Barnes, a salt of the earth guy from the hardscrabble streets of Philadelphia, began collecting art from around the world upon landing his fortune. But when he saw his post-Impressionist collection criticized by Philly’s elite, he decided to keep it housed outside of the city in a building located in the suburb of Merion, making it available for viewing only during restricted hours and never to be sent on tour. Following Barnes’ death in a car crash in 1951, the truly unbelievable chain of events chronicled in The Art of the Steal resulted in his collection being moved away from its Merion headquarters to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The move was diametrically opposed to Barnes’ will and wishes.

The Art of the Steal, which has received raves at major film festivals and is now opening around the country, was helmed by Don Argott, a Philly-based filmmaker who was not all that familiar with the Barnes saga before he began the film.

“Lenny (producer Feinberg) approached us with the idea,” recalls Argott, who started working on the film in 2007. “He had been living in the area and took classes at the Barnes, and was enamored with the place and had been following what was happening with the place. He thought there was a big story there. He approached us. Called us one fateful day and we sat and talked about the story and we thought there was a big story, too. The more we dug in and found, we realized that no one really knew the story. We really felt that we were lucky to be the first filmmakers to tell the story completely.”

The Art of the Steal is that rare documentary that becomes more surreal as it goes along.  Like many good thrillers, there is courtroom drama, powerful people using their clout to do questionable things and even a smoking gun. To get all of that into a feature film must not have been easy for Argott and his collaborators.

“We had to leave out a lot spanning 120 years and involving Barnes buying the collection, pissing everybody off and dying,” jokes Argott, a 1995 graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia. “There was an ‘Oh sh-t!’ factor: Just as you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it gets worse.”

Argott says that the unusual saga turned even weirder when Richard Glanton, a prominent lawyer and legal advisor to former Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh, became president of the Foundation, taking control over from Lincoln University, a predominately black college that was willed the collection but fell on tough financial times. “I knew nothing about this stuff,” says Argott. “That was a benefit of it. Sheena (producer Joyce) grew up on it and she knew about the rumblings. Nobody was really prepared for what was to come.  It was great because we got to discover it, too, and try to structure it on a pretty complex tale, coming from no point of view.”

Even prior to its national release, The Art of the Steal has met its share of controversy. There are essentially two sides in the story portrayed in the film: Those who believe the Barnes collection should remain in Merion, where it served mainly as a teaching tool, based on its founder’s wishes, and those who think the public is entitled access to the collection, and that a move to a museum in downtown Philadelphia is a more appropriate and popular showcase for it. It’s obvious where the film stands—in the corner of the former.

Argott’s own interests and objectivity has been questioned since the film screened at 2009’s Toronto Film Festival. “It’s frustrating,” admits Argott about the naysayers who say that those in favor of moving the Barnes have not gotten a fair shake from him. “I’ve heard it quite a bit. Any film’s objectivity is lost, no matter what. You must be taking some kind of position. First of all, only one side would really talk to us. We tried very diligently to get Rebecca (Rimel of the Pew Charitable Trust) and Bernie Watson (Chairman of the Board of the Barnes Foundation) to talk. We have people who have views on the other side in the film. (Former Pennsylvania Attorney General) Mike Fisher and (Pennsylvania governor) Ed Rendell are amazing, and legitimize some of the claims that are considered one-sided. So it’s tough. We obviously will not be able to get away from it, even when people write about it. We tried to tell a complete story.”

Some of the problem with the Barnes situation is similar to what politicians deal with everyday, believes Argott. “As a citizen, it’s a little more of the same thing that’s happening with politics. All the people that helped you get there, you have to serve them. You are talking about extremely powerful people here. We’re talking about Comcast, the Pew, Rendell and Annenberg. Christopher Knight (the art critic for The Los Angeles Times) asks ‘How do you speak out?’ That’s a problem with our political system as a whole. Presidential candidates take money and then how do you criticize them?”

But Argott adds that although the principals in the case of the Barnes Foundation may come off badly in The Art of the Steal, they should not be judged in this one situation. “The tough part is that people are presented in a negative way (in the film),” notes Argott. “I don’t think Rendell, Pew, Ray Pearlman (a philanthropist featured prominently in the  movie) are all bad. But they have so much power and when you criticize them, you get shot for it. Just because they have flaws, they’re not bad guys. Rendell turned things around and he gets credit for turning a city around. And the same for Pew, who does a ton of amazing things for the arts. But that they can’t be held accountable (in the case of the Barnes), I disagree. If they do a bad thing, it should be said they did a bad thing.”

Speaking of bad things, Argott says Hollywood is also guilty of doing some of them to him in regard to his 2005 documentary Rock School. This well-received study of Philly’s Paul Green and his School of Rock, which teaches kids how to perform like rock stars, bears a striking similarity to Richard Linklater’s 2003 comedy School of Rock, starring a Green-like Jack Black as the rambunctious instructor. When this writer mentions that Linklater claimed he never heard of Paul Green until after making School of Rock, Argott responds: “Richard Linklater is a great filmmaker, but that’s bullsh-t. We found out about his film 4-5 months into making our movie. VH1 approached Paul Green a year before about doing a reality show. (Screenwriter) Mike White was so adamant about saying they knew nothing about Paul. But MTV is owned by Viacom who also owns Paramount, who produced School of Rock.

“Paul had a big article in Spin Magazine, and it’s all a little too coincidental. Everyone knew we got screwed because the studio that released it tried to tap into it (School of Rock’s success). We had an R-rated documentary, but the little company that released our film (NewMarket films) marketed it to the School of Rock crowd. They should have gone out to Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa fans. There was 54 f–ks in my movie. That’s not School of Rock.”

While on the surface, The Art of the Steal may play like strictly like a Philadelphia story, with interest only focused on a struggle within the city and its environs, Argott claims otherwise. “It’s about the clash between art, commerce and culture,” he says. “There’s historical relevancy here and the universal theme is the dollar. It always comes down to money. We’ve put the dollar ahead of everything and when we do that everyone loses. This is a small story that is going on everyday in every corner of the world.

“There’s something about going to Ireland and seeing a sense of history and preservation and history,” Argott says. “But we’re a young country and we’ve bulldozed landmarks. What happens ten years from now when Independence Mall becomes Independence Mall. It’s not beyond the range of possibilities. This story to me shows how possible it all is. There is something special about the Barnes Foundation, but this is one thing that’s not going to exist in one way. Is it better served if it made more money?