At one point in the new film The Art of the Steal, one of the people protesting the moving of Dr. Albert Barnes' art collection (Picasso, Modigliani, Renoir, Cézanne, amongst others) from its home outside Philadelphia into the city proper stands outside the gates of the museum's eventual home, screaming, "Philistines!" The art world occasionally turns on such clashes of passion, but this level of fervor is particularly striking, and says a lot about a near-century-long struggle between one man's vision and the acquisitional imperative of the moneyed elite.
The Art of the Steal traces the history of Dr. Barnes -- himself quite wealthy, but also quite progressive when it came to ideas on art, culture, and education -- the foundation he formed after the Philly elite initially derided his collection, and how said elite has tried for decades to gain control of that collection, now valued at over $25 billion. They finally succeeded, but not before director Don Argott, producer Sheena M. Joyce, and executive producer Lenny Feinberg (himself a graduate of the Barnes Foundation) managed to trace the manipulation and subterfuge employed to finally win the prize. The film's a riveting examination of how noble goals can be undone by the most insidious of politics, and how the quest for a literally priceless collection of art can motivate powerful people to circumvent a man's dying wish.
I got to speak to Argott, Joyce, and Feinberg about the difficulties in portraying the full dimension of this story on the screen, and why a big, shiny, high-profile new museum will not necessarily serve Dr. Barnes' collection well. Click on the player below to hear the interview.
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