Premiered at SXSW, The Art of Making It, from filmmaker, artist, and former gallerist Kelcey Edwards, is a documentary that follows a group of emerging fine artists working to break into the upper echelons of the art world to financial and cultural success, and the challenges that make that nearly impossible for all but the anointed few. Those in power in the art world have become gatekeepers that limit opportunities for diverse voices, or really anyone who doesn’t attend the right university or art school. Those art schools can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving artists with a mountain of debt. This film considers how and if artists and disrupters can change the status quo, and why it is essential for the way art is presented and promoted to be rebuilt to level the playing field. It is a fascinating inside look at a business in desperate need of change, in order for all corners of society to be reflected in the art and artists that gets celebrated.
Director Kelcy Edwards has a unique perspective to offer as a visual artist, and a filmmaker, and someone who worked in the art business. She talked about the commodification of art and the fascinating professionals featured in the film, and offered some ideas how we can do better for working artists from all economic and cultural backgrounds.
Leslie Combemale: What has been your own experience of the commodification of art?
Kelsey Edwards: My experience of the commodification of art has primarily been as a curator and gallerist who shows emerging artists. I find it particularly rewarding to help an artist sell work earlier in their career. Some of my favorite sales have been to collectors who have never bought an original piece of artwork before. Unfortunately, it can be just as challenging—if not more so—to sell a work of art for $1000 as it is to sell a work for $50,000. It takes work to convince people who might be accustomed to spending a few thousand dollars on a piece of furniture, and yet have never bought a work of art, that they can and should feel empowered to buy original works of art from working artists at price points they can afford. Part of the role entails helping them understand where to find interesting work from emerging artists, and teaching them about becoming custodians of these works. It feels like investing in a generation of new collectors, and expanding that demographic to include people that historically have felt as though there were outside of the traditional art world.
On the flip side, there are many serious collectors who don’t buy work by emerging artists from smaller, more emergent galleries. There can be a lack of investment in this part of the ecosystem, but I am always grateful for those collectors who make these kinds of acquisitions, and encourage those of us who are involved in these ways. It truly is a labor of love at the end of the day to find these artists, curate these shows, write about the work, etc, and these small sales of “affordable art” are a necessary lifeline for emerging artists and the small galleries that support them.
LC: There are several people highlighted that, as both a female film critic and female gallery owner, I found compelling, Hilde Lynn Helphenstein as Jerry Gagosian and the female artists working to make a living in a predominately male-dominated field in particular. How did you choose them, and why did you think their perspectives were so important to include?
KE: Including the storylines of female artists and the particular challenges they face was important to me as a female film director, gallerist, and working mother. Understanding that film is a platform and an opportunity for the kind of representation that is often lacking in these larger conversations about the art world is part of my responsibility as a filmmaker and storyteller. As Charles Gaines says at a certain point in the film, we have a long way to go with female artists. They’re still earning less than their male counterparts, even though they make up more art school graduates. How will we learn about why this is if we don’t have the chance to meet these artists, and hear directly from them about what their lives look like, and what their struggles are?
LC: Can you talk a bit about other artists you met and included in the film? What drew you to them and what about their own experience made you single them out specifically to be profiled in the film?
KE: In our casting process we were looking for a broad range among our artists. We wanted to make sure that they represented various forms of diversity, such as regional diversity, diversity in terms of the materials they worked, with and the subject matter they tackled, and that they each represented a population that has historically been marginalized in the art world at large. We looked at dozens of artists and considered their practices and their work, but ultimately it comes down to those with whom we felt a certain kind of spark, in terms of the work they are doing, and a soulfulness in their ability to speak to their stories, motivations and concerns.
LC: I loved seeing the work Cesar Garcia-Alvarez is doing with The Mistake Room. How is the gallery going, and how did you learn about him?
KE: Cesar is fantastic. He is a friend of Allison Berg, our co-producer. She introduced us to Cesar, who in turn introduced us to a couple of the artists that ended up being featured in the film. Those kinds of personal connections producers can bring to a project like this are enormously helpful, in terms of helping us, as filmmakers, gain access to—and the trust of—our subjects. It isn’t easy, as a film crew, to get access to people like, for example, Michael Govan (the director of LACMA) or the CEO of Pace Gallery, Mark Glimcher, so you rely on the relationships your team can bring to the project. The Mistake Room continues to do wonderful things. I encourage anyone reading this interview to follow them. As for Cesar personally, he is doing some very exciting things in his career…stay tuned.
LC: Where do you yourself stand on Stefan Simchowitz and what he’s doing? I think it’s complicated, but it seems like the more anyone wants to equal the playing field in the art world, the more appealing he seems.
KE: Stefan is an interesting character. He embodies many of the contradictions of the art world. He doesn’t come across as a reliable narrator, necessarily. At the same time, he does things transparently that others in the art world do more furtively, leaving you wondering if he is a visionary disruptor, or an anti-hero. People either love him or hate him, and whichever position they hold, they do so passionately. But as Anton says in the film, “I like him.” He’s incredibly entertaining.
LC: So few people know just how incestuous the most lucrative parts of the art world are, and this film does a great job peeling back a few of the layers. Having Pace included is very valuable to the film. I assume none of the most egregious and at fault would appear… Did you ask any to be interviewed?
KE: We were initially going to approach a different mega gallery, but a friend of producer Debi Wisch asked her, “Why not Marc?,” and a lightbulb kind of went off. He is very charismatic, and we realized he’d make a great “tour guide” for the top tier of the blue chip art market, because he is engaging and accessible.
LC: I know it’s not your job to solve the problem, and alerting the world to it is certainly an important step, so thanks for taking it. What do you think can be done to make the art world more inclusive, like how can we force the issue of having no curators of color at any major museums?
KE: I believe we need more films like this one. Getting people to reframe the conversation is so important. I’m personally growing weary of films and headlines about art stars, auction prices, scandal and greed in the art world. I wish there were more stories reminding people of the cultural value of art. If people remembered WHY art matters, they would work harder to protect the integrity of the ecosystem, the same way films about climate change can inspire people to change the way they live to reduce their carbon footprint. Why is there so little support for films about art and culture in the U.S.?
LC: I assume the film has been finished for at least a little while. Have there been any dramatic changes or positive movement for the artists represented in the film or any regulations that have been put in place?
KE: When we cast our film, we were looking for artists who were at pivotal moments in their careers, and some of the artists are now finding incredible success. Jenna Gribbon has really shot out of the cannon in a way that none of us could have anticipated. And it was recently announced that Felipe Baeza will be included in the Venice Biennale, which is huge. They are all very focused, serious, talented artists, as you see in the film. It is nice to see some of that paying off for some of them after so much patience and struggle.
LC: What else do you want laypeople to know about the art world that will help expand understanding of the inequities that make it nearly impossible to “make it” as an artist not anointed by the powers that be?
KE: People need to pay attention to the socioeconomics of it. If we have created a system where only those who can already afford to be artists get to be artists, what does that say about the voices that will go on to “tell the story of our time?” How might that play into the lack of diversity or the predominance of a certain kind of artist? That same concern should extend to who “gets to be” (or can afford to be) a curator, or a gallerist. Those positions begin as low-paying internships in expensive cities. Laypeople need to understand that until the socioeconomic playing field is more level, whether it is through more broad individual support for working artists and for cultural institutions, more government support, or both, there will always be gatekeepers.
LC: You’ve spoken a bit about your experience and what inspired you for The Art of Making It. What did you learn in the process of creating the film that surprised you?
KE: I was surprised by how eager everyone was to have these conversations. In every interview, there seemed to be a sense of relief, like people were grateful to finally be saying these things out loud, a sense of “this is the secret everyone knows.” The art world can be a carnival, and I think the people inside of it, who got into it for a kind of love of it, were grateful to have a chance to talk about how messed up it can be. I think it comes from a place of wanting it to be better, which, in essence, is about wanting us—all of us—to be better. One of the quotes we incorporated into our deck, and used as a mantra while making the film, was a quote by Bertold Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
LC: Who are you hoping will see the film and what are you hoping will happen as a result?
KE: I want everyone to see the film. Students, lay people, art world insiders. Parents whose children want to pursue any creative discipline: dance, music, literature, film. This film speaks to all of it. It is a film that pretends to be a film about the art world, that is really a film about creativity, and the human spirit and its power to communicate and connect us to one another. As Anne Pasternak says in the film, it’s art that lasts, and shows us who we are and who we were and shows us a better way forward. Who wouldn’t want to see a film about that?