‘Art of the Steal’ shows at Aspen Academy Screenings
December 29, 2009
ASPEN – Don Argott has been accused repeatedly of making his documentary film, “Art of the Steal,” a propaganda piece. Argott can defend himself on various grounds: For one, the film is about a subject – post-Impressionist and early Modernist art – on which Argott didn’t have much of a point of view. In his spare time, Argott plays guitar in a metal band, and a previous film, “Rock School,” about a class that teaches kids the finer points of head-banging music, was “pretty close to my heart,” Argott said, in a way that “Art of the Steal” is not. In addition, there was an entire segment of players in the story who refused to speak with Argott, preventing him from presenting a balanced take on the subject.Mostly, Argott replies to detractors that the perspective he offers in the film is not his own, so much as it is of Albert Barnes. A Philadelphia-area doctor who assembled a extraordinary collection of art, Barnes had a distinct point of view on his collection, one which he defended passionately: that the Barnes Collection should be exhibited precisely the way he arranged it; that it should remain in the building he created for it in the Philadelphia suburbs; that the institution he founded around the artwork should be for education, rather than commerce.”The story isn’t about our opinion, but about the guy who owns the artwork,” said the 37-year-old Argott from his home in Center City Philadelphia. “It’s Albert Barnes’ story and we have his script, and his script is clear, whether you agree with it or not. He left these instructions behind.”It took some decades following Barnes’ death, in 1951, but those strict instructions eventually became a source of heated conflict. Defenders of Barnes’ will are pitted against an alignment of Philadelphia-based corporate, political and institutional powers that seek to move the collection inside the city proper, where it will live in a building more akin to a typical museum than the old, funky and idiosyncratic home Barnes created for it. “Art of the Steal” traces what becomes a high-stakes legal battle, and illuminates the personalities and passions beneath the fight.Argott – who made the film with his frequent partner, producer Sheena Joyce, and Lenny Feinberg, who instigated the project and is credited as the film’s executive producer – was not much concerned at the outset that the film would be seen as propaganda. His primary worry was that “Art of the Steal” would be seen as a parochial film about a local issue that would generate little interest outside of Philadelphia. So “Art of the Steal” emphasizes the fundamental motivations – money and power – at the bottom of the dispute. “We decided, the only way to make this work is to make it bigger, blow it out into bigger issues,” Argott said.At the same time, “Art of the Steal” personalizes those issues by paying due attention to Barnes. Having made a fortune by inventing an antiseptic used for the eyes of newborns, he began collecting art in the 1910s. He brought an unorthodox approach to art, stressing first-hand experience over the study of art history. If he was an outsider to begin with, that stance was cemented when a 1923 public exhibition of his collection, in a Philadelphia museum, was savaged by critics. Upon his death, Barnes left control of the collection – now estimated to be worth more than $25 billion – to Lincoln University, a small, historically black school outside of Philadelphia. Barnes placed strict limits on how often the collection would be open for public viewing, preferring to maintain access for the art students associated with the foundation.Barnes’ unconventional, but passionately held beliefs inject the element of idealistic struggle into “Art of the Steal.””Since we do character-driven pieces, we were looking for a character,” Argott said. “And Albert Barnes is a great character. We wanted to bring him back to life.”He believed in what he was doing. He was a serious guy without patience for things he didn’t think were important. This was his passion.”That passion has been handed down to the people, mainly art critics and neighbors of the Barnes Foundation, who speak up in the name of Barnes’ wishes. They are a colorful bunch, and Argott gives them room to vent.”You want to bring out those idiosyncrasies. A film like this needs levity, needs some humor,” Argott said. Those voices also allowed Argott to bring what he calls his “rock ‘n’ roll sensibility” into the film. “It’s not the stereotypical PBS art movie. We wanted an approach that wasn’t slow-moving pans of painting, classical music, lots of talking heads. It’s not an art movie. It’s an art-heist movie.”firstname.lastname@example.org
“Art of the Steal” shows at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 30, at Harris Hall in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series.Also showing Wednesday in the series: “A Single Man” (8:15 p.m.) fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut, starring Colin Firth as a gay British man in 1962 Los Angeles, grieving over his dead lover.