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Don Argott, director of The Art of the Steal
With S. James Snyder
Philadelphia art aficionados have been following the drama for years: the turmoil surrounding the Barnes Foundation of Merion, Pennsylvania, and the attempts by many to relocate the art collection of the late Dr. Albert Barnes to downtown Philadelphia, an act that seems to be in violation of his will. Director Don Argott didn't know much about the drama when he first set out to make The Art of the Steal, approaching the controversy with an open mind. But what he found was a vicious and volatile legal battle that dealt not only with the issues of Dr. Barnes' legacy, but also the larger themes of fine art, commerce and a consumerist society gone mad.
You followed this unfolding legal drama for some time. Were you surprised by all the twists and turns this battle took?
We wanted to be fair in telling this story, but the more we dove into it, the more resistance we would encounter from the Barnes side. What we found was an intriguing story, not just from a controversy standpoint but also from the fact that people were uneasy wanting to get back into it. It was probably halfway through shooting when we started getting a feel for what the film was going to be and how powerful the issues were becoming. There are so many moments in the film where, at any point, things could have turned one of two ways. Things could have gone this way and been fine, but instead they went this way and all hell would break loose. Hell broke loose a lot.
But ironically, that was good for the movie, wasn't it? With all this hell breaking loose, the movie really became about a whole lot more than just a few paintings in this one city. You touch some universal chords here...
That's the thing, this is not an art story really, it's a story about power and political corruptness and the value that we've placed on culture, and how we've tried to monetize everything in this culture at the expense of anything being sacred or special any more. That was the big appeal from my standpoint. Halfway through the film I took a trip to Ireland, and you go there and you realize that in most places in Europe there's such a sense of history and reverence for the past. And here we are in the middle of this story, looking at the Barnes collection and one of the few places left in this country that is very special and important. It should be this shining example of something that should really be left alone, or even promoted, but then you look at all these people lined up against it and I feel like we've gotten to a really bad place in our culture where everything's driven by dollar and trying to drive extra money through tourism.
Here in New York, though, we deal with these issues all the time, between places like the Guggenheim and the Whitney, and all the galleries in Chelsea. This notion of art and commerce is a pretty familiar one here. How have New York audiences in particular reacted to the work?
The big difference between the crowds in Toronto and the audiences here has been that Toronto viewers were perhaps a little more sympathetic. In New York, it's clear that people like the movie but then there are a lot more "buts" in the Q&A. "I love the movie, but..."
New Yorkers are super sophisticated, and they understand art, but at the same time they don't know this whole story and so they're a little skeptical as to who is in the right and who was in the wrong. And some just disagree with me. One person came up after a screening and they said "I really love your film but I totally disagree, and I said, "That's great, you're free to disagree." But it's so rare, to get people talking and thinking about a topic after the film has ended, and what I loved most is that after the screenings here in New York, almost everyone was going out of the theater talking. This great debate erupted, and that's all you can ask for when you set out to make a documentary.