Philadelphians are intimately familiar with the saga of the Barnes Foundation, the peerless collection of Impressionist masterworks whose scheduled 2012 move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from its home in Lower Merion continues to be the subject of fierce controversy. But outside the city, the battle over the Barnes — and the collection itself — has been something of an open secret.
That secret got a lot more open with the release of The Art of the Steal, the proudly muckraking documentary directed by Don Argott and produced by his 9.14 Pictures partner, Sheena Joyce. Whether they came away thinking Albert Barnes was a visionary whose dying bequest had been violated by moneyed interests or an eccentric nutball with great taste in art, audiences left hungry to view one of the world's greatest unsung art collections.
Steal, as did prior Argott doc Rock School, expands the national image of a city beyond airborne batteries and the Rocky run. Even better, the films do it without a trace of civic boosterism, the kind that makes the city seem even more undervalued than it is. In The Art of the Steal, city officials claim moving the collection will make Philadelphia a world-class city, but that's not something world-class cities need to prove.
True, the film's portrait of city and state officials involved in a conspiracy to subvert the will of a dead man isn't entirely flattering, but a world-class city ought to able to stand that, too. "There's such an inferiority complex here," Argott said last week. "Look at Client 9, the documentary about Elliott Spitzer. Do you think New Yorkers are worried about how they come across in that? It's like, how much can the city take a look in the mirror and be OK with it? The film does not make the city look good. But that's the fault of the reality of what's happening here."
Film and Screen Honorable Mention
The already-respected Secret Cinema upped its relevance by unearthing The Jungle, an all-but-lost snapshot of gang life in 1970s Philadelphia, then gathered some of the film's subjects for a reunion. International House For consistently inventive rep cinema programming.
Josh Fox's Gasland
Milanville's Fox isn't a Philly guy, but his documentary exposé about the ills of natural gas fracking could have ramifications here for years to come.
Philadelphia Underground Film Forum
For giving indie filmmakers a legit shot at the elusive big screen.