To many, contemporary art simply means money. But with her new film The Price of Everything, Jennifer Blei Stockman wants to show this elusive world is not just about the one percent. “If you want to hear about the latest billionaire who is spending a fortune on art, you can read about that in The Wall Street Journal. We didn’t need to do a film on that,” Stockman, who co-produced the documentary with Debi Wisch and Carla Solomon, told Sotheby’s. The Nathaniel Kahn-directed HBO Documentary Film, debuted at Sundance in January, is currently screening in select theaters and will premiere on HBO on 12 November. “When contemporary art started selling for over $50 million, it was clear something was going on. We were curious to explore what led us to this point." Rather than just doing a more traditional artist bio-pic, The Price of Everything paints an image of the contemporary art market through unprecedented access to auction houses, museums, artist studios and homes. Drawing on her 30 years of experience in the art world – from serving as the former Guggenheim board president to being an art collector herself – Stockman spoke to us about some of the documentary’s most memorable scenes and the current state of the market.
How did you source such diverse participants in this film? Was it hard convincing people to come on board?
This was a big challenge, a very tough and awkward job. I’ve known most of the people in the film for a very long time, but nonetheless, a number of people did decline to be interviewed. Most people don’t want to reveal themselves in front of a camera. We have about 140 hours of total footage, which was edited down to 98 minutes. So we still have great, unused footage and many fabulous interviews – maybe even another film to make. Once the participants trusted us, they knew that it wasn’t going to be a “gotcha” film. Having Gerhard Richter agree to be filmed was such an honor because he’s camera shy and rarely does interviews. Our goal was to make the very exclusive art world more accessible and transparent for a general audience. Only a tiny percentage of people on this planet will ever have the sublime opportunity to meet artists in their own studios or sit in an auction room.
How consciously were the interviewees' story arcs conceived and woven together?
Having story arcs for each major character was our goal from the beginning. Nathaniel and I spoke endlessly about finding the connective tissue to create a beginning, middle and end. For example, we watched George Condo, who is very prolific, paint a large painting in our three-hour interview with him. And then there’s Njideka Akunyili Crosby who paints only 10 to 12 paintings a year. Yet they’re both considered very important and relevant artists today with significant demand for their work. We looked at certain artworks as having story arcs too. The Jasper Johns Target painting appears numerous times throughout the film – we see it sold at the Scull auction for $125,000, then purchased by Stefan Edlis for $10 million in the late 1990s, and finally gifted to the Art Institute of Chicago by Stefan and his wife, Gael Neeson.
The Poons plotline was particularly poignant. Did you go into the film knowing you wanted to spotlight an artist who had faded from market prominence?
Totally. Larry Poons was famous in the 1960s and early 1970s. Leo Castelli was his dealer, and he was hot; part of the art scene along with Johns, Stella and other household names we know today. We needed to understand why someone who once had a vibrant market had disappeared. Many artists fit into this category, but when we visited Larry at his home in upstate New York, Nathaniel and our Cinematographer Bob Richman knew immediately that he was our guy. He was so authentic and such a sympathetic character on screen, and at 83, he had a long, heartfelt story to tell. Plus, he was a total contrast to Koons – and their names rhymed! We didn’t know he would have an exhibition at Yares Art gallery, which helped to create yet another wonderful story arc.
What was your goal with approaching the relationship between art and money, which is at the core of your film?
We wanted to rebalance the story between art and commerce because it’s not always about price. It’s about value, and those are not the same. Price is a moment in the art market where there’s at least one buyer who will pay a certain amount of money for something. It doesn’t mean it’s not as valuable as a piece that didn’t sell for as much. When contemporary art is written about in the press, it’s only about glitzy parties and multi-hundred-million-dollar prices paid for art. This was not the art world that I personally related to, or cared about. We wanted to show it from another point of view, especially how artists feel about the market. As Jerry Saltz says in the film, 99% of the artists don’t make money and don’t sell at auction. It was essential for our film to communicate values not related only to price.
Let’s talk about the viral Banksy. What does it say about the current market?
We would have definitely managed to include the shedding of the Banksy in our film, if it occurred in our real time. It was a brilliant orchestration delivered with perfection— like a performance piece where you could feel the artists hand in the auction room. The stunt made such a statement about the art market today—the shedding of it would actually increase its value. It reminded me a bit of when Cindy Sherman did her Horrors series. The images were her reaction to her soaring prices and suddenly becoming an art star. So she made the ugliest, most grotesque pictures she could think of, and of course, they ended up doing better than ever.
In the film, Marilyn Minter says that women are bound to be old or dead by the time their art is seen and appreciated. Do you think the tides are turning?
If you look at recent auction records of the top 50 performers, women absolutely still rank at the bottom. Many brilliant and important female artists with strong exhibition histories are still not achieving close to the same prices as their male counterparts of the same generation. This makes no sense at all. Most museum collections are still white male dominated. I do feel that curators and museum trustees are slowly becoming more cognizant about representing a more diverse art world, in terms of gender, ethnicity and culture. Women are still pushing boulders uphill on this front, although let’s remember that price is not the determinant of value!
"We hope that in 50 years, art students will want to watch this film to know what the art world looked like in 2018."
Was there anything that you learned or surprised you during the making of this documentary?
Njideka was a surprise that happened organically. Her work was the first painting after the Steven and Ann Ames sale at Sotheby’s, which we filmed, and it flew. We spent a day with her in LA, and that was an extraordinary experience. At 35, she is having her moment. During the film, she actually won the MacArthur Fellowship, and Jerry Saltz won the Pulitzer, so we were very proud of them both.
Was it challenging to remain objective in filming? For example, interviewees speak of museums as both democratic gatekeepers of culture and cemeteries for collections.
It was a goal of the film not to be judgmental or take sides. We want to provoke conversation. We hope that in 50 years, art students will want to watch this film to know what the art world looked like in 2018 because you can be sure it will look very different in 50, even 20 years.