Pulse: Chatter: Film: Barnes Burning

Why tempers are flaring — still! — over Philly’s most contentious museum

The Art of the Steal, an incendiary documentary about the Barnes Foundation’s 2011 move into Center City, opens February 26th at the Ritz Five, and Lenny Feinberg, the first-time producer from Lower Merion who financed it, is already feeling the heat. That’s no surprise, considering the film calls the transfer of the Barnes collection (which may be worth $25 billion) the greatest art crime in modern times and blames the city’s most powerful people and institutions for it. The movie is lively and surprising — its soundtrack includes a version of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” It’s a thrilling new world for Feinberg, 56, who made his fortune in real estate. We chatted by phone:

Your film labels the Barnes move a grand art heist and presents a rogue’s gallery of perpetrators: Ed Rendell, John Street, Pew Trusts CEO Rebecca Rimel, Barnes chairman Bernard Watson, benefactor Ray Perelman, benefactor Gerry Lenfest, the Inquirer, the Annenberg family. Making friends in high places, huh?
We didn’t start off to go after everyone, but that’s the way the pieces fell. They wouldn’t talk to us — we tried.

And now you think Pew is attacking?
We got a call from an organization that administers royalties for museums saying that the Barnes Foundation said we were using their paintings in our film without paying royalties. I think they’re starting to become aggressive toward us.

The film raises questions about the process, but why is it wrong to move all these Cézanne and Matisse works to where more people will see them? What’s the benefit of keeping the Barnes where it is?
What’s the benefit of keeping Valley Forge where it is? What’s the benefit of keeping Betsy Ross’s house? It’s not just a place where there are pretty pictures. It was a man’s vision.

This is your first film. What did you do before?
Buy and sell real estate.


In and around Philadelphia. I don’t want these people to know what I do, because they’ll start coming after me. I’m not kidding.