“It’s not logical, it’s not fair and you may be one of the greatest living artists and nobody knows it,” says Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, in “The Art of Making It,” succinctly summing up the gatekeeping in the modern art world that has prevented a truer reflection of society than it currently offers. Every creative industry should get a survey of its shortcomings as engaging and comprehensive as Kelcey Edwards’ coast-to-coast travelogue of major galleries and the fine artists who struggle to break into them, many facing the brutal reality of accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt in order to enroll in the art schools necessary for them to get noticed by those who put on shows and those who can become patrons of their work.
For as many museums’ mission statements encourage artists who go their own way in their work, “The Art of Making It” outlines a very rigid path towards a sustainable career, eliminating all but the most fortunate, either in personal wealth or selected for scholarship by the powers that be, from pursuing their art any further than high school. Perhaps not be the most original of observations, Edwards finds a fresh way into it as she follows those trying to buck the system on both sides of the aisle, profiling a quartet of artists who have tried with varying degrees of success to make a name for themselves on their own terms and tastemakers, gallerists and buyers that think they’ve found a better way. Whether anti-establishment by choice or necessity, their rebellious spirit alone knocks off any suspicion of pretension ahead.
It’s clear that Edwards was inspired by one of her subjects, the Instagram anarchist known as Jerry Gagosian, taking the nom de plume from New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz and Larry Gagosian, the majordomo of the gallery space and making art of her own by shitposting hypocrisy in the industry. The film is able to interview “Jerry” after she’s been unmasked and uses her story as just one illustration of the sexism and racism that runs rampant as her posts become far less embraced once anonymity is lost. The artists Edwards tracks have already felt as if they’ve been judged when their work has been all but ignored, whether it’s Grisela McDaniel, a 24-year-old who has reinvented portraiture for victims of sexual violence with motion-activated audio, Chris Watts, who adds splashes of color around historically significant scenes of African-American history or Felipe Baeza, a DREAMer who works with parchment to reclaim narratives about the indigenous community from those that once spread fear of them with the same paper centuries earlier.
“The Art of Making It” need not put a fine point on the fact that Jenna Gribbon, the only white artist in the group Edwards focuses on is portrayed as having enough success not to have to be concerned about anything professionally besides her practice – not having to, say, work at three different bars as Watts does. But celebrating how she had the foresight to position herself well on Instagram, she distinguishes herself with an entrepreneurial savvy on par with her artistic instincts that opens up an important conversation beyond the most obvious barriers to entry and the film becomes a rarity in finding a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic when as art institutions have been shut down and are rethinking their priorities, it arrives with examples of what a more equitable art world could look like and how it could take shape emerging from the artists themselves at a moment when they could resonate more practically. “The Art of Making It” quite entertainingly mines the absurdity of the art world, but gets as creative as any of its subjects to do the profound work of making sense of it.