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'The Art of the Steal' wades into the move of the Barnes collection

The documentary likens the relocation to a hijacking. Critics say the movie presents a one-sided view.

March 11, 2010|By Chris Lee

Despite it all, the collection is now scheduled to move to Philadelphia's museum-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway as part of a $150-million public arts project in 2012. "They're moving something that doesn't need to be moved five miles, spending a couple hundred million for no reason," Argott exclaimed. "And they're using taxpayer money to do it."

But according to several Barnes officials interviewed for this article, Miller, spokesman Andrew Stewart and executive director Derek Gillman, "Steal" is just sensationalizing a dispute between the foundation and a group called Friends of the Barnes that has already been settled in court.

Moreover, they cite a confidential e-mail that they say they intercepted from the filmmakers (which Barnes officials declined to discuss in detail) to argue that the production was biased from the outset, singling out "Steal" financier and executive producer Lenny Feinberg, a real estate investor and former Barnes Foundation student who they say has an ax to grind.

In an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Barnes Foundation Chairman Bernard C. Watson wrote on March 7: "The film's narrative constructs a mosaic of villains and victims that, upon closer examination, collapses under the weight of unsubstantiated allegations of a 'vast conspiracy' to undermine the wishes of Dr. Barnes and 'steal' the collection. Indeed, the foundation's initial concern that the film would lack objectivity and perspective has been more than borne out."

Argott brushes off such criticism as too little too late. "When we approached them, they thought we were a small indie film that wasn't going to be seen by anyone. Now they're backed into a corner," he said. "They're saying the film is full of baseless facts and wild allegations. And yet they haven't given us any specific grievances to address."

Further, the director denies that Feinberg set any agenda for the production. "Lenny has a passionate interest with the place and as a collaborator, he was welcome," Argott said. "Whether he had an agenda or not, we as filmmakers didn't."

Gillman said that for whatever outcry "Steal" has generated, the film "is not going to have an impact" on the collection's impending move.

"In the last six months or so, membership has increased from just under 400 to almost 3,000," Gillman pointed out. "There's a real momentum behind us. And the philanthropic community is very much behind the move."

For his part, Argott says that he isn't out to change policy. He hopes the film will promote social advocacy.

"It's an important, unfortunate story that touches on bigger themes than moving art," Argott said. "It's charity as big business and art versus commerce. As well as a person's legacy: How safe is it? There are supposed to be checks and balances in our culture. In this instance, where everybody is on one side of an issue, nobody is holding feet to the fire and asking, 'Should we be doing this?' "

chris.lee@latimes.com

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