"The Art of the Steal," takes a look at the battle over one of the most impressive and valuable collections of art in the world. Valued between $25-30 billion, The Barnes Collection, currently housed in the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, has been long fought over.
Despite Albert Barnes’ explicit instructions left in his will detailing his desire to keep the paintings at the Barnes Foundation in Merion Pennsylvania, the city of Philadelphia, backed by a powerful group of allies including the Pew Charitable Trust, has taken steps to move the collection to a new facility in downtown Philadelphia.
The film takes a detailed look at how a desire for tourism dollars has led to the dismantling of one of the most unique art museums in the world as well as a man’s vision for a unique art experience.
Blast got a chance to sit down with the film’s director, Don Argott. We talked with him about greed, money and the Barnes Collection.
BLAST: When did you first encounter the Barnes Collection?
DON ARGOTT: Lennie Fienberg (the film’s executive producer) approached us with the idea of doing the film. I didn’t know anything about the Barnes Foundation up until that point. Lennie took classes there 20 years ago and he lived in the area. And if you live there, just like in Boston, you hear rumblings about the Gardner Museum; it’s one of those local stories that has been around forever. Lennie had the foresight to figure out this was a really big story and no one was telling it. Then I read John Anderson’s book called Art Held Hostage which recounts the history of the Barnes Foundation and the circus that ensued in the 90’s and kind of ends before the idea was to move it. It’s a great book; people should check it out if they want to learn more about the history of it. The film picks up where John’s book leaves off.
BLAST: Watching the film you see how much the former students value the education they got there. What about the education inspires that loyalty?
DA: It is really intimate, really comprehensive. I never took classes there but I don’t think you have to, to appreciate what that place is. It’s not dissimilar to the Gardner in that it’s this small, anti-art museum experience. That’s really what it is. I can’t for the life of me understand why the city of Philadelphia and the region is so committed to destroying this when they should be doing the exact opposite. Why can’t we have the art museum on the parkway and then have this thoughtful antithesis of the art museum experience at the Barnes Foundation. Why isn’t there room for both?
BLAST: It seems like a completely different experience, particularly comparing it to typical art museums.
DA: The whole thing is a work of art. It is different than an art museum. I don’t want to be anti-art museum, but most people who have gone to art museums know it is a pretty sterile environment. You see the painting with the placard that tells you everything you need to know and then you are on to the next thing. The Barnes challenges all that. You go in there and it is a true art experience. It is not just "The Card Players" hanging with the other Cezanne’s. Everything is arranged in such a unique way. Why they would want to dismantle that just doesn’t make any sense to me. The idea [is] that they can’t make it work, where it is proven in the movie that it was never their intention to make it work.
BLAST: Yeah the building and the arboretum are works of art themselves, like you said, and it doesn’t seem like that is being taken into account.
DA: How could it? You see where they are putting it on the parkway. It’s a swath of land. Even if they put gardens in there it will be the difference between a city garden and a suburban garden where there is actually an expanse of horticulture around you.
Blast: Do people in Philadelphia remember Albert Barnes? That there was an actual guy behind this incredibly valuable collection?
DA: The turning point for us was when we got the footage of Barnes. That was an amazing find for us. It was literally under someone’s bed. No one even knew what was on it until we got the film transferred and we were like "Oh my god, it’s Albert Barnes." He was not a heavily photographed or documented guy, and these are actual home movies that we have. The idea of really seeing him as a living human being is more compelling than most people realize, because for so long Barnes has been a name on a building — The Barnes Foundation. But that name doesn’t mean anything. There is only one photograph — it’s not even a photograph, but a reproduction of a painting — hanging in The Barnes Foundation. For all accounts, the Barnes does nothing to bring him back to life or show that he was this real guy. I think it is easier to discount someone’s wishes when you don’t think much about them. Seeing him as a living human being, it is different. You see he was a real guy. To me, this is his story. It’s not my story or my opinion. I think it is the film that Barnes would have made if he were alive. It is a pretty cool thing to have that responsibility.
BLAST: It is really easy to forget that the names on these collections were actual people and that the works they chose to buy represent them in such a personal way.
DA: That is exactly it. There are supposed to be checks and balances for all these things. Frankly, the Barnes trustees, the people who run the foundation — that’s their responsibility. It is not an outside group’s responsibility to make sure the Barnes is maintained as an amazing cultural institution. It is the people who are running it, and the people in place now have the exact opposite idea of what they should be doing with the art versus what the donor asked them to do. That is their responsibility, to make sure his wishes are kept. And they should be ashamed for what they are doing. There is a way to make it work; they’re just not interested in figuring out how to do that. They have moved on. They are all about turning it into something else now. It’s not about preserving what they should be preserving.
BLAST: And the fact that the value of the collection is completely due to Barnes’ incredible eye for the best artwork.
DA: That was important to illustrate. Oh, I get it, these paintings are worth millions and millions of dollars; that is why this is such a big deal. That is why the idea of moving it has more at stake. You see the other side and what they see. They don’t see a Van Gogh; they see a $10 million painting. That is what it has become. They see the paintings hanging in the Barnes as a series of dollar signs held captive away from the tourism community. It is this untapped resource to them that they can’t keep their hands off. It is almost like they can’t help themselves
BLAST: When you can advertise that you have an art collection worth $30 billion it has to be appealing.
DA: They can advertise that now and still be making all this tourism money because, the last time I checked, there is no Merion International Airport. People are going to come in to Philadelphia and not just see the Barnes Foundation. If they are interested in art they are going to go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and to the Rodin Museum. If they want history they will go to the Benjamin Franklin Institute. There are amazing cultural institutions in Philadelphia and that’s not even mentioning the history. You can go see the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall. There is a ton to do. The idea that it all has to be in a 20-block radius because you don’t want to inconvenience the tourists by going out five miles into the suburbs and experience something unique is so ignorant. It’s disgusting.
BLAST: Before Richard Glanton took over as President, was there this big push for people to get more access?
DA: I think, to Richard’s credit, or discredit — whichever way you want to look at it — it was his idea was to put this thing on the map. He said as much and he did. He put it on the map in a pretty big way. The problem is the way that he put it on the map didn’t have this farsightedness of all the ramifications that would cause. I think, again, any part of this story, if cooler heads had gotten together and said “How can we figure this out? Where is the middle road?” things could have been different. But that never happened. From that point forward it became about something entirely different. Like everything else in our culture, we start arguing about the things that are not important and not about the things that are. So we are talking about this issue and this issue when we should be talking about how we can make this work without playing the blame game. We need to shift the argument back to what it is really about.
Even now with the film out, the people at The Barnes Foundation and Pew Charitable Trust who have commented are trying to discredit us as filmmakers because of our stance. They are doing everything but telling anybody what is false in the movie. But they will keep it up, hoping by beating the drum about how the film is filled with baseless facts, it will stick without them having to back up what they are saying. It’s all about not having the real discussion. I think that’s what is cool about the movie, because it asks more questions than it answers, and that is a good starting point. As long as the dialogue is talking about things that are really important.
BLAST: And you gave Bernard Watson (President of the Barnes Foundation) and Rebecca Remmel (President and CEO of Pew) the chance to counter the other arguments. That they declined speaks volumes, I think.
DA: You have to ask yourself, “Why wouldn’t they want to talk?” When you pull up Pew’s FAQ page about the Barnes Foundation, the last question is about why they didn’t participate in the film. And their answer was that we were going to be a biased film and they didn’t want to take part. They have gone on to say, because they have so much integrity for the truth and facts, they didn’t feel like it would be worthwhile. But isn’t that statement the whole reason they should set the record straight? It would be like no Democrat wanting to go on Fox News because they know they have a contrary position. That is a sure-fire way to make sure we never get anywhere — by not talking to the other side.
We didn’t have an agenda going into it. We would have still asked the hard questions; we still would have showed what we showed, but maybe there would have been a more compelling answer that would have challenged the viewer to consider their side. Instead, they chose not to. I feel like they are acting like they chose not to participate because they knew we were this nefarious [group] that was trying to discredit them. The truth, is they didn’t think anything of us. They didn’t think they needed to answer to us because they didn’t think we were anything. It wasn’t until we premiered at the Toronto Film Festival that their ears perked up and they were like, "Oh shit." And then we got distribution and it was even worse. Now they are up against the wall and they are trying to save face.
BLAST: Was there a challenge for access throughout?
DA: Only when we tried to get in touch with Barnes and Pew and we just got flat out rejections. We contacted the Barnes so many times throughout this. We almost begged them to be apart of it. I obviously wanted to shoot inside the gallery; that’s why I really wanted their participation…early on, but then throughout I kept telling them that people were saying some pretty nasty things, you should defend yourself. They said we don’t even want to talk about the opposition because if we acknowledge there is an opposition then we are playing right into the idea that this is a worthwhile dialogue to have and we don’t think it is. The courts permitted us to move forward, so we are. Then I told them to come onscreen and say that. That would be more effective than putting a graphic up that said they denied comment.
BLAST: It is so ironic that the people who are supposed to be representing Albert Barnes won’t come on and talk about Albert Barnes.
DA: Thanks for picking up on that.
BLAST: The Barnes Foundation is supposed to represent his vision and Watson wont even come on to talk about it.
DA: Now the film is representing his vision and the foundation that is supposed to be, is doing the exact opposite and that is the grand irony of the whole thing.
BLAST: Going back to Richard Glanton — he was such an interesting interview and you have to give him credit for coming on and being so open. I was curious did he express any regrets for the moves he made?
DA: Like you said Richard is an interesting guy and I gave anyone who came on the record and spoke a lot of credit. I gave Governor Rendell a lot of credit. I give them all a lot of credit for coming on and saying, "Yeah, let’s talk about this and let’s have a real discussion about this." Rendell wasn’t trying to hide anything. He told us the facts. It just so happens that the facts support the other side’s claims, the idea there was this plan set in motion a long time ago. I think Glanton had been kind of painted and portrayed as a bad guy in the press for a long time, and for good reason, no question. But we were giving him a forum to speak and he spoke candidly about it and I think the film shows that. Say what you will about Richard Glanton but at least he did kind of bring the Barnes out of the dark ages — once again, depending how you look at it, that [it] was a good or bad thing.
BLAST: Have they explained how the new building will help with the money problems the Barnes Institution has?
DA: We didn’t put it in the film because we couldn’t get a definitive number but the foundation runs at a deficit about $1.5 to 2 million a year. That means they have to make up $2 million in revenue to sustain themselves. It seems like a pretty big extreme to combat that by building a $200-400 million building and then figure out how to sustain that. The problem is all the other cultural institutions in Philadelphia are really strained right now. They aren’t doing well. This isn’t an example of putting a shopping mall in an area desperate for more shopping. People aren’t pouring into these institutions like they used to. The idea of putting something else on the parkway and that it will help seems wrong. I see it as a bigger strain. You are going to have yet another cultural institution that is going to need significant funding to sustain itself. To combat this very small problem, they are making an even bigger one. I haven’t seen the plans for how much the new building is going to cost because I don’t think they even know. First it was $100 million, now it’s $200 million. They haven’t even started pouring concrete in the hole and they are already $100 million off from your first estimate. I’m not an accountant, but that is off by a lot before you are even done. That should be causing a lot of red flags to go up.
And how much is it going to cost to sustain itself? How much revenue do you expect to bring in every year? What happens when the luster wears off and the tourism numbers drop because it isn’t new anymore? What is the plan?
BLAST: I thought it was funny that John Street (former mayor of Philadelphia) said the Barnes would generate revenue to match three Super Bowls "without the beer." Interesting way to put it.
DA: Yeah. We didn’t show it in the film, but later in the press conference a reporter asked him how much it was going to cost and he said "Oh, I know you people, I’ll say a number and then you’ll hold me to it, I don’t know." He doesn’t know how much it will cost but here you are all excited about it. I don’t know anywhere else in the world, except politics, where you can get away with that kind of ignorance and arrogance. I know I cant as a filmmaker. When a producer asks me how much a film is going to cost, I can’t say, "Lets just get started on it and figure it out as we go." If that isn’t a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is.
BLAST: Another interesting idea that several people expressed in the film was how this isn’t the way Philadelphia should try to establish itself. It’s like they are trying to steal or manufacture culture.
DA: Philadelphia has — probably Boston too — this inferiority complex because we want to be something we are not. Instead of embracing what we are, it’s always about getting better at this or that. No city is going to be New York City. We don’t have to be New York or Washington or Los Angeles. It’s like an identity crisis. But we are already good enough. We have all this history and culture, let’s just be that; let’s promote that.
I shot that sign in front of the Ritz Carlton that says "Philadelphia- America’s Next Great City." What does that mean? Why do we have to be the next great anything? Philadelphia is a great city. I love living there. I have been there for 15 years. I grew up right outside New York, but I chose Philadelphia because of what it is, not what it wanted to be. It’s this idea that we are always falling short. To them this is something that means we won’t fall short now. We are going to have a world-class art institution. But we already do — its called the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That is a world-class art museum. People around the world recognize it as a world-class thing. Why do we need to bring something in to compliment that? We already have that. It’s called the Barnes Foundation and it is five miles outside the city. It’s a 10-minute car ride, 15 in traffic.
BLAST: And a collection that has been in place since 1922 is more impressive than a brand new museum. The Barnes is already a part of the city’s history.
â€¨DA: It is beyond counterintuitive.
BLAST: Perhaps the scariest part of the film was how the state allotted $107 million in the budget for the new facility and no can say who put it in. How is there no check or accountability?
DA: It’s terrifying. These budget bills are as thick as novels, and how many more of the little Barnes-type things are in there that we don’t know about? The mayor of Philadelphia announced yesterday that because the city is in such dire financial distress, they are going to start charging $300 a year for trash removal. There is always money for these other things, like the new Barnes building, that don’t benefit us, but they hide behind the idea that they are. They have already used $30 million of taxpayer money for the new building. That is a lot of money. Especially when you are now trying to charge me for my trash removal. That pisses me off. Enough is enough. Can’t we go back to the drawing board? When a family is struggling, they look and say we are going to have to scale back on the entertainment or the going out to dinner and then you figure out how to make it work. But within city government or government in general, there is always all this money and they never look at it because it is untouchable somehow. Instead they see, how can we squeeze more money out of citizens to make it work. Isn’t it time that somebody should look at the numbers and say hey, is there another way here besides charging the residents $300 a year to take out their trash?
BLAST: And you show these public hearings in the film about the Barnes, but in at least this case, it seems that the deals get done long before the process even started.
DA: It’s disingenuous. It’s a dog and pony show.
BLAST: Have you seen the plans for the new building? How does it look?
DA: It’s a big, modern, ugly-looking building. I mean, it looks fine for a new building. But for the Barnes Foundation, it just doesn’t work. I think the architects are stuck between a rock and hard place. The whole idea of the move is so guilt-ridden. The idea that they are going to move but keep it the same is ridiculous. Or that they are going to hang the paintings the way Barnes intended for them to be, but the rooms are going to be bigger. You are already destroying it. Just finish destroying it. The idea that they are trying to do it in the name of Barnes is more insulting and disingenuous than anything else.