'The Art of the Steal' highlights one-sided nature of some documentaries

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rebecca Rimel isn't worried, but she isn't pleased, either. The head of the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of this country's most powerful and respected philanthropic institutions, has been cast as the villain in a David-and-Goliath drama making the rounds of the documentary circuit.

If you believe all of the claims made in "The Art of the Steal," a break-out favorite at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Rimel helped orchestrate a vast conspiracy to commit what one antagonist calls the largest act of cultural vandalism since the Second World War.

Director Don Argott's film turns a long-standing and contentious debate about the fate of a fabled art collection into an epic battle between good and evil, pitting Machiavellian Philadelphia Blue Bloods against True-Blue Art Lovers. The documentary, the latest salvo in the saga of the Barnes Foundation, opens in the Washington area March 19.

"The first thing, of course, you are is sad," Rimel said last week from a conference room on the 10th floor of the Philadelphia-based Pew's Washington office. "You have to move forward based on your reputation, and you need to be transparent."

It is a strange position for the Pew Trusts. Over the past quarter-century, the organization has supported documentary filmmaking to the tune of $26 million. But that was mostly for films of the Ken Burns variety, straightforward educational fare destined, in many cases, for public television. Now the organization is on the receiving end of a polemical blast from a small, independent filmmaker who has mastered the art of asymmetrical documentary warfare.

The success of the small documentary, which is circulating among an engaged, literate audience that might be considered the Pew's ideal demographic (people interested in the arts, history and larger social issues), points to a missing platform in public life: a place where the slash-and-burn documentary can be answered, fact-checked and subjected to dispassionate evaluation. Newspapers, which are in decline and strapped to cover even blockbuster films, aren't up to the job.

Argott's film argues that over the past decade, Pew and other larger Philadelphia foundations worked behind the scenes, with state and local government collusion, to hijack the art collection assembled by pharmaceutical mogul Albert Barnes and move it from its longtime home in the Philadelphia suburbs to a prominent site on the city's main cultural and tourist artery.

The size and richness of the Barnes collection is beyond belief (181 works by Renoir, 69 by C├ęzanne, 59 by Matisse), and Barnes, who died in a car accident in 1951, intended it to live on as an educational institution -- where art would be taught to a select few of the common men, with a mix of old-fashioned pragmatism and almost theosophical obscurantism.

Barnes never meant for his collection, which was to serve as the basis for a deep study of art, to become a public museum, and access to the public has always been limited. After the last member of his handpicked inner circle died, the collection passed into the control of small and financially strapped Lincoln University, a legendary, historically black college that had fallen on hard times.

The Barnes indenture, which reflected its patron's mix of idealism and misanthropy, was fatally misconceived, with crippling limits on how his money could be invested. Quixotic and even irresponsible management drove the foundation near the point of insolvency, which is when Pew and other foundations stepped in.

Working with the Barnes Foundation board of directors -- which was expanded to the point that Lincoln University lost full control -- the groups helped save the foundation from financial ruin. But they're also helping with a move into a new home under construction on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where it will be more accessible (scheduled to open in 2012). Barnes, who hated the Philadelphia establishment, would probably be mortified.

Argott's film was produced by Lenny Feinberg, a former Barnes student and ferocious opponent of the move. But Argott says he entered the project with an open mind.

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