A Hoot! for the Story Behind “The Art of the Steal.”

City Paper contributing editor and film critic Sam Adams had a nice piece on the film The Art of the Steal in that alt-weekly’s February 25-March 4 edition. February 26 is the release date of The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the impending move of the Barnes Museum from Lower Merion Township to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

The move of the Barnes is controversial, and the film (by local documentary filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena Joyce), according to Adams, definitely takes sides. Somewhat to my surprise, the filmmakers are, to an extent, positioned as mouthpieces of Lenny Feinberg, a Main Line real estate developer who financed the film and opposes the move. Thus, it’s no surprise that Barnes staff and board members declined to be interviewed for the film.

Adams gets an excellent and revealing non-answer answer from Argott about bias in the movie. The quote: “If there are things that have gone on that are wrong, it’s not one-sided because we’re trying to make it one-sided.” This also raises an interesting question about documentary work, and this piece in particular: is it documenting the problems the Barnes has had and the debate over its future? Or is it documenting the resistance to the move? And should such filmmakers pursue objectivity, or enter the morass with preconceptions?

Unlike many features about local work, Adams digs fairly deep: he speaks with not only Argott, Joyce, and Feinberg, but also Thom Powers of the Toronto International Film Festival (where The Art of the Steal got a lot of buzz and a distribution contract) and Derek Gilman, the president and executive director of the Barnes Foundation.

One quibble with Adams’s piece is that he seems to buy into the notion – promulgated by the filmmakers and Feinberg – that “The two sides are hardly evenly matched.” That may have been true before the Barnes tore through its endowment in a series of lawsuits with Lower Merion, in which both parties, ultimately, were at fault for the expenses incurred. Lower Merion, for many years, strongly resisted expanding access to the Barnes, and many of these lawsuits were related to just that. For the township, its residents, and neighbors to position themselves as victims is at best an elision, and at worst disingenuous.

But then, this article is really about the film, and whether I end up agreeing with Arnott, Joyce, and Feinberg’, I’ll surely see it (and kudos to their success!), and it will surely be an informative piece about the Barnes debate. Kudos to Adams, too, for digging up more illustrative information about the documentary and its construction than most other pieces I’ve read on the film.

– Nick Gilewicz

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