SXSW review: ‘The Art of Making It’ sheds light on the art world’s exclusivity


“We now have more people in the world who call themselves artists than we ever have had before in the history of human time,” proclaims independent curator Helen Molesworth about midway through “The Art of Making It.”

The feature-length debut by Kelcey Edwards, a University of Texas alumna and former Austinite, “The Art of Making It” is currently making the rounds of film festivals, landing at SXSW recently. It is produced by Debi Wisch, who was also behind the art-market documentary “The Price of Everything.”

For those already familiar with the art world, “The Art of Making It” covers pretty well-known territory. But for those who aren’t, the film is a light introduction to the moneyed landscape of mega-galleries and art institutions that exist in world capitals, mainly New York.

In this privileged realm, art’s salability far eclipses any notions of aesthetic originality. Art dealers weld inordinate influence. Collectors chase the same pre-selected group of artists. And MFA programs cripple graduates with hundred of thousands of dollars of debt.

Against this backdrop, Edwards laces in the stories of a handful of young artists on the cusp.

“It’s not logical, it’s not fair,” says Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak, about this exclusive system. “You may be one of the greatest living artists in the world and nobody knows it.”

If Edwards’ film is aims to be a critique, it rings hollow when we hear laments from those who are the very scaffolding supporting the art world’s exclusivity — Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, Pace Gallery head Marc Glimcher, and yes, even wise-cracking critic Jerry Saltz.

Beyond Molesworth — whose outspokenness about the lack of diversity and equity in art institutions cost her a job at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art — Edwards does offer a few disrupters including witty Instagram critic Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, aka @JerryGogosian. And Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly, curators of pop-up art fair Spring/Break, stand in for the countless others like them who admirably create art opportunities that are fresh and genuine.

What saves “The Art of Making It” are the stories of four artists trying to make it. Felipe Baeza, a DACA recipient, makes prints and paintings about migration displacement. African American painter Chris Watts was booted out the Yale MFA program, but continues to make abstract paintings that echo the history of trauma in the Black community. And Detroit-based Gisela McDaniel worked as barista for years while making vividly colored portraits of women who are sexual assault survivors. McDaniel’s paintings include an audio component so her subjects can share their stories. And she achieves a success completing a mural project in Cleveland honoring Georgina DeJesus who survived years of captivity and abuse.

Yet given everything Edwards’ film spotlights, it’s no surprise that the artist who emerges as making it is Jenna Gribbon, an attractive white woman and self-described ‘it girl’ whose figurative paintings are easily legible — and sellable.

In the end, for all that “The Art of Making It” tries to expose “an industry where all the rules are currently being rewritten,” it’s clear that the art world’s gatekeepers remain in place.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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