A new film sets out to explore just how difficult it is to “make it” in the art world. Director Kelcey Edwards and The Price of Everything producer Debi Wisch paint a raw portrait of the contemporary art world in The Art of Making It. The film features several artists, critics, and art professionals, including Chris Watts, Gisela McDaniel, Jenna Gribbon, Felipe Baeza, Jerry Gogosian, and Helen Molesworth. Following the artists as they struggle to find their footing, the viewer sees some of the many hurdles that they face trying to enter and survive in the industry.
The Art of Making It touches on several hot topics, giving an overview of various issues from the last few years while leaving ample room for further investigation. There’s discussions of gatekeepers like galleries, museum boards, and art schools; brief mentions of art fairs and concerns of flipping; and an overview of some of the larger issues facing society in general like social and racial injustice. These additional references nicely supplement the overall narrative of the film, though some need footnotes to help the viewer along. The film leaves it up to the viewer to fill in the blanks, researching the articles that flash across the screen and picking up on the hints of gossip concealed in conversation and camera angles. Ultimately, The Art of Making It is a conversation starter.
The moments where the documentary truly shines are those that focus closely on the artists themselves. We see intimately how much passion, talent, and commitment to the craft that they possess, all of which is disregarded if the artists don’t fit into the system. Art school is a big part of this system, as is the art market itself. As artist Gisela McDaniel reflected on navigating the industry: “It’s been stressful and I don’t know who to trust.” Felipe Baeza added: “The art world wants to digest you easily.” The sad message is that without artists there is no art industry and, in the current system, artists are forgotten and forced to do anything to survive, often leaving little opportunity to actually make art.
Other strong moments were the easiest to miss. Following Pace’s President and CEO Marc Glimcher around the gallery and into some of the private viewing areas, the viewer catches a glimpse into the blue chip art world. Glimcher remarks that the industry needs to adapt, getting rid of old models in place of new ones. At the same time, we watch as he walks through Pace’s library and says his favorite part is the full collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s personal letters to people like his brother Theo and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. The camera pans over the packed shelves searching for the collection as Glimcher remarks, “it’s hiding in here somewhere.” A casual comment that is barely caught on camera, it points to the very issue that smaller galleries and advocates are trying to fight against–even knowledge and information are kept from public access.
The film states that it “exposes an art world ecosystem on the verge of collapse”, and while it certainly does shed light on many of the ways in which the system is failing, The Art of Making It proves just why the system is far from collapsing. The infrastructure in place to keep the decision-makers at the top are not changing. As curator Helen Molesworth aptly explained: “being in the art world is like…being in a small, sectarian cult with its own belief systems and its own social practices and formations and social mores. We talk in code, we dress a certain way, we’re very identifiable to one another, but we are not an open field.”
As much as dealers, curators, and artists may say the system is adapting, the gatekeepers are still in place. What is at risk, as the artists make clear, is the diversity of perspectives and creative approaches that the industry does very little to support.
The Art of Making It premieres at DOC NYC on November 13th.
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer focusing on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine among others. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.