Documentary ‘The Art of Making It’ reveals how far the art world has strayed from the artist 

Artist Chris Watts as seen in Kelcey Edwards’ documentary, “The Art of Making It.” Image courtesy of Wischful Thinking Productions.

MARFA — “The Art of Making It,” a documentary which chronicles the journeys of a handful of emerging artists and critiques aspects of the contemporary art world, will be shown from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at the Crowley Theater as part of the Marfa Invitational. 

The event is open to the public, and an additional screening may still be announced. The hour and a half-long film, released in 2021, was shown at South by Southwest this year and is available to rent on most streaming platforms. The director, Kelcey Edwards, and producer, Debi Wisch, will be in attendance at the film’s first Marfa screening, though no formal Q&A is planned. 

The Art of Making It travels to Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Detroit and New York. Both the film’s topics and interview subjects span the scope of the contemporary art scene, from artist and professor Charles Gains’ take on art and academia, to art dealer Stefan Simchowitz’s radical approach to the traditional art market. 

Critics Jerry Saltz and Dave Hickey, Hilda Lynn Helphenstein — the woman behind the well-known Jerry Gagosian meme account — representatives of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and PACE Gallery owner Marc Glimcher also make appearances in the film. 

The documentary runs the gamut from statistics on how little the U.S. government invests in the arts compared to other developed nations to personal stories of emerging artists looking to break into the industry in major metropolitan areas. 

“This is meant to be an American story in terms of how things work in our culture, in our society,” said Director Kelcey Edwards in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel. “It’s our government, our art market, our artists.” 

Edwards has a strong background in the arts, predating even her own experience of running a gallery in East Austin for many years. She grew up visiting artists’ studios with her father, who was a curator at the San Antonio Museum of Art throughout the ‘90s. Prior to filming, she had contemplated the documentary’s themes for many years, she said. 

Edwards shared commonalities with the young artists featured in her film — she attended a university to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree, only to graduate saddled with student loan debt, move to New York City to try and make it as an artist and see peers succeed in the highly-competitive arts industry, many times due to their higher socioeconomic status. 

The director, now in her forties, recently began contemplating the early challenges she faced in her field of documentary filmmaking while opening a reboot of her Austin gallery in New York.  

“I found myself speaking with young artists, and it brought it all back, what it was like to be coming out of graduate programs and trying to make a name for yourself,” said Edwards. 

She figured being a young artist today must be “exponentially harder” than it was just a couple decades ago, due to education and costs of living increases, along with other factors.

“There seems to be fewer opportunities. It seems more competitive. I just wondered how that was playing out,” said Edwards. 

In contrast to the film’s backdrop of systemic issues plaguing the arts industry — including the disproportionate power of art dealers and its popularity contest nature — viewers also gain intimate access to the thoughts and experiences of talented young artists, including Chris Watts, as they navigate their careers. 

Watts, who was kicked out of the MFA program at Yale University, creates a body of work driven by unjust police shootings of Black Americans. Another artist, Gisela McDaniel, preserves her subject’s survival stories through oral histories and seeks to empower them through her paintings. 

Artist Gisela McDaniel as seen in Kelcey Edwards’ documentary, “The Art of Making It.” Image courtesy of Wischful Thinking Productions.

Edwards said that in setting out to make the film, she wanted to explore the barriers to entry for artists that differed from her own. In addition to regional, gender and racial diversity — diversity often absent from the art world, she noted — the film also focuses on artists’ varying mediums and mindsets. 

“On the one hand, [the film] was a kind of love letter to these artists and their work and their journey coming from a place of respect and care and concern,” said Edwards. “On the other side of it, I wanted to evaluate and critique systems that can be exploitative, oppressive and favor the wealthy and the privileged.”  

Themes of gentrification, technology, capitalism and international borders are explored throughout the documentary. In many cases, Edwards details how today’s contemporary artists are tackling societal issues through their work — the Indigenous artist collective Postcommodity is featured for their project seeking to connect a highly militarized area of the border between Arizona and Mexico with giant balloons, for example.

Edwards said she strove to create an honest portrayal of the complicated art industry, which she, and many of the film’s interview subjects, argued needed more frank discussion and transparency regarding equity moving forward. 

“[I also wanted to] shine a light on the people within that system ​​that worry about it and care about it and want to evolve it because the art world consists of many, many people,” said Edwards. 

Edwards found her documentary subjects were relieved to be speaking about the industry’s struggles, and a tone of reflection present throughout the film was further underscored by changes to art viewing, societal interaction and discussions around racial equality brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. 

In featuring the variety of people involved in the art world and its myriad issues, Edwards said she hoped to attract all viewers, including those who may not be deeply entrenched in the arts scene, to illuminate the vital role artists play in our society. 

“The place to start, for me, was to put a human face on it and to tell a human story,” said Edwards. “And to remind the general public that the art world is not just con artists and art as a luxury good, but actually makers that are talking about some of the most difficult issues of our time through work that is really made heroically and selflessly without any guarantee of return.”