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Makers of "The Art of the Steal"

What happens when there is a private collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art valued at more than $25 billion, and the original collector is dead, those entrusted are not really looking out for the best interest of the collection, it is not exactly easy to view, and some of the most powerful people in one of America’s foremost cities wants it?

Through politics, money, connections and legal manipulation you make The Art of the Steal.

Located five miles west of Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation has been using its incredible collection of art for decades to serve as an educational institution, rather than as some tourist trap.

Created by Dr. Albert C. Barnes in 1922, the Foundation was a deliberate thumb in the eye of the capital and cultural elite of the City of Brotherly Love (or Shove). At first they called his collection of art “debased,” but as the years went by and the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh and others sold for millions of dollars, they took a different attitude and when Dr. Barnes died in 1951, some saw a chance to bring the art to Center City.

Too bad Barnes left control of his collection to Lincoln University, a small African-American college.

Not to be deterred by eccentrics, art lovers and a minority, for the next fifty years moneyed movers and shakers would make many attempts at bringing the museum to Museum Parkway, home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (of Rocky Balboa fame), breaking the explicit written wishes (and spirit) of the museum’s founding father -- similarly to the way other famous founding fathers in America’s birthplace have had their explicit written wishes broken.

An epic in the making with a tragic conclusion looming, director Don Argott and producer Sheena Joyce chronicle the narrative canvass of this grab for power in Art of the Steal.

Both residents of Philadelphia their previous collaborations include Rock School and Two Days in April. We recently caught up with the couple in Los Angeles.

UR Chicago: I was in Philadelphia during the 1990s while some of this was unfolding. Were you following it as well?

Sheena Joyce: I was at Bryn Mawr College at the time, which is right down the road from the Barnes Foundation. So all I heard about was the “Goddamned neighbors.” The Philadelphia Inquirer was saying, “Here’s this magnificent collection. The [neighbors] don’t want anybody to see it. Why shouldn’t it move to Philadelphia? What’s the big deal?” I had a very different idea of what the story was before we started. The more we dug the more my opinion certainly changed.

Don Argott: It’s a much bigger story than “the neighbors.”

UR: Why did you want to tell this story?

DA: Lenny Feinberg, a producer of the film, approached us about doing the story. Actually I didn’t know anything about the story. I moved to Philadelphia in 1993. I didn’t know anything about the Barnes Foundation at all. It was a hidden story nobody was talking about. It was a story where there was more than met the eye.

SJ: We were skeptical at first.

UR: Why?

DA: We get a lot of people pitching us [Laughs]. We learned early on in filmmaking to ask, “Is this a magazine article or a novel?” There are a lot of magazine articles out there that can’t sustain a person’s interest over a feature length film. Can it get past the 20-minute mark? That has really resonated with us.

SJ: We did a teaser to see what was there, what kind of characters were involved, and the layers to this onion just went on and on and on. We were convinced early there was a bigger story to explore.

UR: How did your attitude toward the situation change as you continued to make the documentary?

DA: The minute people start not wanting to participate starts to throw up red flags. Why are we not taking about this? The first call we made was to the Barnes Foundation. Who else were we going to call first if we’re making a film about the Barnes Foundation? Immediately we encountered uneasiness. They certainly didn’t throw open their doors and say, “Come on in.” We continued to go back to them and let them know how we felt they should be involved in this thing. They didn’t want to enter into this because it was acknowledging there was an opposition.

UR: Obviously there was an opposition. How did you track down the dissidents?

DA: We did our research. We were very careful to find people associated with the story. We certainly didn’t want to start getting people pontificating, from all walks of life, about the Barnes Foundation.

SJ: When Barnes and the Pew Foundation and everyone on their side wouldn’t talk to us we tried earnestly to find others on the pro-move side as well. We did, but at the end of the day it still is going to seem weighted.

UR: Right, the most consistent criticism lobbied at the documentary is that it is one-sided. I have my own contentions with that analysis but I wanted to hear what your responses are to such accusations.

SJ: It’s a very convenient excuse after the facts. Even at the end of the proURct as it was getting very emotional and people had strong opinions, Don had a very frank conversation with them and said, “Listen, you guys might not look so good. Even if you say, ‘It’s a done deal. We’re moving forward,’ you’re voice will still be in it.” And they said, “Absolutely not.”

DA: It’s a convenient thing for them to say it’s one-sided when, by their own actions, they made it one-sided.

UR: By refusing to appear.

DA: Right. And on the flipside of that, if it’s one-sided, what are some of the things in the film that are false?

SJ: They’ve said it’s one-sided. They haven’t said it’s not true.

UR: Did you have any political intentions?

SJ: No. We had no agenda. We had opinions but we didn’t make this film because we were for or against the move. But this is about Dr. Barnes opinion. We really wanted to bring him back to life. People forget that it’s not just a name on a building; it was a man. We wanted to make him the real character.

DA: This film is championing the Barnes Foundation and Dr. Barnes in a way, frankly, the Barnes Foundation trustees should be doing. [Laughs] That’s the grand irony of it.

UR: What is the current status of the move to the Museum Parkway?

SJ: They’re digging a hole. They had a golden shovel ceremony. The rhetoric has increased since this film has come out. The court gave permission for the move in 2004 and now suddenly they’re rushing plans out. There’s web camera running 24/7 on the construction.

DA: Essentially they’re saying, “Yes, there’s this film out there bringing up these things but look at the web camera, we’re building this thing.”

SJ: While the Philadelphia press has not, we have been asking, what is this move going to cost? How much money have you raised? What are your sustainable studies here? How many visitors do you think you’ll be getting and how long will you sustain them? How much will it cost taxpayers? As taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania it’s upsetting to see a $100 million line item in the budget to move the Barnes Foundation to the Parkway when they’re closing libraries, public pools, recreation centers and the police are under funded. There are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered.  - John Esther, Film Editor

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