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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; E03

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.

"We never positioned ourselves as people who were hostile and had any agenda," he says. But his film is hostile and has an agenda. It uses a well-developed set of polemical techniques -- ominous music, imputations of dark motives, ad hominem interviews -- to connect only the dots that make its case.

Rimel, who refused the filmmaker an interview, says she hasn't seen it and doesn't intend to, which means she'll avoid seeing its repeated use of unflattering photographs of her. Argott says he thinks the Pew folks dismissed him early in the film's progress because they didn't take him or his project seriously -- "they thought we were going to disappear, the film would never be seen" -- but Rimel says the Pew knew early on that the film wouldn't be fair.

"There was some errant e-mail traffic that indicated they were prepared to pay for disgruntled employees to talk," Rimel says. Argott says the likely e-mail in question was from Feinberg, the film's executive producer.

"That didn't come from us. That came from Lenny, who was kind of an outsider, who didn't really understand the way documentary works," Argott says. There was never any intention on the filmmaker's part to pay for interviews, he says. Rimel declined to share the e-mail.

It is precisely this sort of back-and-forth -- the sometimes tedious attempt at journalistic evenhandedness -- that many documentarians hope to avoid in their films. You hear this a lot: We are not journalists, but filmmakers, which is something else, which gives us greater license to tell more artful and sharper stories.

"Why can't it just be a good story?" Argott asks when asked whether he would label his film a documentary. "Film is film."

There are important documentaries that simply couldn't have been made according to the standards of mainstream journalism.

Kirby Dick's 2009 "Outrage," which discusses rumors about homosexuality among anti-gay political leaders, directly confronts what it argues is a double standard in the traditional media -- and it couldn't make its argument without violating that standard.

Werner Herzog's documentaries navigate between what he calls "ecstatic" and mundane truth -- and audiences know full well to check their bearings before believing anything. In many cases, films about evil -- genocide, torture, bigotry -- don't include "the other side" because the other side deserves no hearing.

Argott's film is different. There is another side that needs to be heard, and the truth of the larger Barnes drama lies between them.

"The Art of the Steal," which may well reach a large audience innately sympathetic to David over Goliath no matter what the facts are, raises larger questions about how individuals and organizations can respond to documentary films. There is no letters-to-the-editor page for the subjects of documentaries, and the notion of countering a film with more film, as online videos often circulate in argument with each other, is impractical, given the time and money it takes to create a documentary.

Pew has responded with an online explanation and rebuttal of some of the claims made in Argott's film. It doesn't plan anything more than that.

But given the success of the film, and the size and reputation of the Pew, this is a fascinating test case. As newspapers shrink and other media grow trivial, documentary film is doing more of the work of public argument in American society. But there is no central clearinghouse for the claims being made by a vibrant, freewheeling and expanding documentary community.

It would be a fascinating use of foundation money to study this phenomenon rigorously -- to pick, say, 50 of the most popular documentaries of the past decade, fact-check them, study their reach and influence, and objectively report back on the reliability of the form. It would be just the sort of public service the Pew Charitable Trusts have been performing for decades.

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