I have an art documentary group.
Think book club. But instead of reading books, we watch documentaries.
Art documentaries, in our case.
And to call it a group or a club is kind of a stretch because there are just 3 of us.
Two artist-friends and I started using documentaries for staying connected to art and ideas (and to each other) while everything was shut down at the onset of Covid.
Janice McDonald and Lisa Call have been friends of mine for nearly 2 decades. We used to go to shows together and attend artist lectures before Lisa left to live in New Zealand. Now Janice and I are doing that part on our own.
But with nobody going anywhere in the spring of 2020, I contacted both of them to see if they wanted to gather regularly to discuss art documentaries. Our little “club,” such as it is, was in business.
In this solo episode I talk about why do this as a group, where you can find art documentaries, how we stay organized, why it's important to diversify our selections, and how our conversations work. At the end I mention some of my favorite films.
Listen Now (or keep reading)
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
I thought I would tell you about our art documentary group seeing that we’re at the end of the film awards season.
There was an art film up for best documentary at this year’s Oscars: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.
It’s about photographer Nan Goldin’s activism, particularly her die-ins—performances aimed at pressuring major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert to divest themselves from Sackler money. (The Sacklers are the family that was at the helm of Purdue Pharma, which aggressively marketed OxyContin as an addictive narcotic.)
Let’s get clear from the outset that I am not a film critic, nor do I want to be.
I watch art documentaries to hear directly from artists and the people closest to them. When I watched All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, I sat in awe of Nan Goldin’s bravery and commitment.
It didn’t take home the Oscar, but it’s worth watching.
Why Art Documentaries?
I have learned so much by watching these documentaries and, more importantly, talking about them with Janice and Lisa.
In our daily lives, we get caught up in our own worlds. We’re reading too much about marketing, about SEO, and the latest kink in the Instagram algorithm.
It’s easy to neglect the larger art world, and this is a mistake. It’s important that we are reminded we’re part of something bigger than ourselves and what goes on behind the closed doors of our studios. We are part of a global community of artists with a distinguished history.
Our global art community provides context. It brings deeper meaning.
If you are new here, you might not know that I have my master’s degree in art history. I started school as a painting major and took loads of studio courses, but I fell in love with art history because it taught me about the world. Not just art and aesthetics.
Art history introduced me to philosophy, mythology, world history, the world’s religions, mysticism, occultism, and even feminism. Art history helped me orient myself by learning more geography and a little more language skills here and there. All while looking at objects made by human hands.
Few disciplines touch upon such a range of topics.
We can read about art history, and I do, but why just read when we can hear directly from artists and the people who know and study them through the medium of film.
Why a Group?
Sure, I could watch art documentaries by myself, and I often do. But scheduling our conversations holds me accountable. It also encourages me to pay closer attention. I take notes because I know I’ll be talking about it with Lisa and Janice.
The process of watching, note-taking, and talking makes it more likely that it will stick in my memory.
This practice has had such an impact on me that I have integrated documentaries and discussion into my Art Biz Accelerator, a coaching group that I started for artists at the beginning of the year.
It’s valuable for us to have these conversations with one another for the same reasons I mentioned previously. To see how other artists are working, or have worked in the past, and to discuss what we discover.
I might teach art business skills and consult about personal strategies, but I never want my students and clients to stray from their roots in the larger art world conversation.
We might find common ground with the artists we watch or read about, or we might find that we work quite differently. More likely, it’s somewhere in between. The important thing is that we gain knowledge from them. We are richer for our discoveries.
If you’re interested in being part of our conversation in the Art Biz Accelerator, you can read more about it at ArtBizAccelerator.com
Where to Find Art Documentaries
It isn’t super easy to find art documentaries. They are scattered and many are out of distribution. Sometimes we find them one place but then they disappear from that source before we can watch them.
Some documentaries can be found on YouTube or Vimeo. Of those, they might have a fee or be free. We are quite happy to pay a fee to filmmakers who tell artists’ stories.
A handful are on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Some are produced by the artists’ galleries.
We’ve watched a couple documentaries from movie theaters’ online streaming services.
You never know where you’ll uncover an art documentary. We found a 10-minute film about Ruth Asawa on the website of the U.S. Postal Service—produced on the occasion of the release of a stamp in her honor in 2020.
We have screened quite a few from Art21.org, a wonderful resource for a look at contemporary artists working in their studios. My (very) minor beef with Art21 is that there is no interviewer or introduction, so sometimes we don’t know how to pronounce the artist’s name. But the videos are so good that we can easily overlook that.
Art21 is one of our top resources and it’s free. The videos are beautifully produced, shorter, and more about the “now” than about an artist’s life’s work.
We have found most of our videos about art historical figures on Kanopy. It has been a godsend.
I say art historical figures, but we really haven’t ventured too much before the 20th Century.
Kanopy deserves special attention.
Kanopy says: “Our mission to democratize meaningful film and television is made possible by our close partnerships with public libraries and universities.”
And that’s the catch: That your library system has to subscribe to it. If yours doesn’t, maybe you can get a library card through a local college or as a university alumnus. It’s worth it if you want to watch art documentaries. This service allows you to stream up to 10 films every month.
The three of us in our art documentary group access Kanopy with our U.S. library cards. Lisa is in New Zealand but is also a U.S. citizen with a Denver library card.
I am a huge fan of public libraries and make good use of my card. I’m particularly thrilled when I am able to find an obscure book (usually an art book) through interlibrary loan. But I didn’t know about the Kanopy streaming service until we started our art documentary group.
We Keep a List of Art Documentaries
We use Notion to keep track of our films.
Quick aside. I’m not sure how much I’ve talked about Notion on this podcast before, but it’s absolutely essential for keeping my business organized. I believe in it so much that I used it to develop an Artist Organizer that artists can use to organize their businesses. You can read about it here.
We have 2 lists in Notion for our art documentary group.
The first is a page of possible films to watch. It’s truly a dumping ground for whenever one of us comes across a documentary of interest.
The second is our running list of films that we have watched, which includes the following.
- The number of the meeting. As I said, we’re currently awaiting our 58th meeting.
- The date of the meeting.
- The person who chose that documentary. More on that below.
- Where to find the film and, if necessary, links.
- An image. Sometime during year 2, we decided to add images to our list to make it more visually appealing.
We might also add notes, related articles, and links.
In preparing for this podcast, I turned this running, unwieldy list into a database inside of Notion. This makes it much more useful and easier to sort any which way we want.
Had I known we’d be going on for this long, I would have started out with a database.
Diversifying Our Selection of Art Documentaries
As I mentioned, I am a student of art history, and there wasn’t a single woman artist in the HW Janson’s History of Art book that was my first textbook. The first female artists to appear in his book came in 1986.
It’s just as much of a task to find documentaries about women artists.
I like the macho men of Abstract Expressionism as much as anyone, but it’s time to move beyond them. Past time. We have yet to find good documentaries about the women of Abstract Expressionism, though we have searched. Thank goodness for Ninth Street Women, the book by Mary Gabriel.
We in our art documentary group are determined to understand our connectedness to the larger world—beyond our own gender and well beyond our race and ethnicity.
When, in January of 2022, I read Artnet’s list of top museum shows for the year, I created a playlist that included films about African-American artist Faith Ringgold, Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe, and Ivory Coast artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. I had never before heard of Bouabré. He invented his own alphabet and was being honored with a show at MoMA.
You must dig deep for documentaries about artists who aren’t alive or are unlikely to have a feature documentary about them, but they are out there. It’s often well worth the trouble of searching for them.
The BBC documentary Tell It Like It Is about Faith Ringgold is pure gold.
How Our Conversations Work
We usually watch 1-2 hours worth of films per session. Sometimes there are shorter documentaries and we create “playlists,” such as the one I just mentioned, for more discussion.
Janice, Lisa, and I meet on Zoom every 2-3 weeks to discuss the selection(s) and, on rare occasions, have gone 4 or even 5 weeks.
Our conversations usually last 45-60 minutes, and sometimes lead to side conversations. But we stay on topic and get off quickly when the conversation has run its course. We never drag things out.
Last year, after watching the excellent documentary Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own, we had the treat of seeing an exhibition of her work together in Denver when Lisa came stateside.
I said at the beginning that we have been friends for a long time. And we had been viewing art and talking about it together for a long time.
This is key and why it works as a democracy. We trust one another.
After the first couple of meetings, we decided to take turns selecting the documentaries. Anyone can veto a selection, but that has never happened. We’re all curious about art in its many forms.
That doesn’t mean that we’ve liked everything we’ve watched.
Some Art Documentaries Are Better Than Others
After watching so many art documentaries, it’s clear that some are better than others. They are produced better, scripted better, and filmed better, making them easier to watch. Sometimes, even the background music can detract from the film’s message.
Still, even in so-called bad documentaries, there is something to be learned.
The fourth film we watched is called In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger. This was just too weird to watch. The animation was excellent, but neither my husband nor I could feign any interest in it. I think Janice and Lisa deserve gold stars because they stuck with it to the end. ( I won't point fingers at who selected this one, Lisa.)
Even though I didn’t like the film, I’m fascinated by the story of Henry Darger, a janitor and secret artist unknown in his lifetime. His work, including 15,000 pages of a novel, was discovered by his landlords, who saved the work from being tossed in the garbage and brought it to public attention. His estate is now being litigated—50 years after his death. I wasn’t interested in that particular documentary, but it led me to surrounding topics, like art litigation, which I find endlessly fascinating.
Curiously, a number of the documentaries we have watched have been written and produced by family members. Daughters, in particular, seem to want to tell the stories of their artist-fathers. Of course, you have to take that into account.
The documentary Botero about the famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero is beautifully done. Truly a stunning film. It’s also directed by a longtime family friend and produced by his daughter. It’s blatantly biased—trying to convince me of Botero’s genius, which I found hard to stomach.
A List of Recommended Art Documentaries
I’m not quite prepared to share our entire list, but I do want to leave you with something to chew on. Some recommendations.
NOTE: Throughout this article, I am linking primarily to neutral sources, like the film's website. That's because distribution changes so quickly. A Web search will help you find where each film is currently available.
The first art documentary watched together was The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, about the seemingly obsessive collage artist. After 3 years, I’m about ready to watch this one again.
Three of the first four films we watched were about artists who were “discovered” after their deaths. I mentioned the one about Henry Darger, which I don’t recommend, but there’s also Finding Vivian Maier and Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint.
If you want to see the world like an artist sees it, watch Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments. It's my top recommendation.
If you want to know what it’s like to be obsessed by a huge project and see it come to fruition, see the stunning film, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang. Or any documentary about Christo and Jean-Claude, such as Walking on Water.
If you’re searching for pure joy, check out Faces Places, a film by Agnes Varda, the elder, with her collaborator, JR, the youthful up-and-comer. The Criterion Collection website describes this as “A detour-rich road movie, a charming intergenerational buddy film, and an ode to artisans of all stripes.…”
For some giggles, watch Guest of Cindy Sherman, by the photographer’s ex-boyfriend who gets pushed to the side by the attention given to his more famous girlfriend.
You really should watch The Andy Warhol Diaries, produced by Netflix. Regardless of what you think about the man and his art, this 6-part series is engrossing and a mini history lesson of the era.
There’s lots of attention given to his collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and we subsequently watched two documentaries about Basquiat wondering how the artists of that era had so much video footage of themselves! (I recommend both >> Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child)
To better understand the threads across decades of an artist’s oeuvre, there are films about Brice Marden, Sally Mann, Cy Twombly, and Pat Steir, as well as those about Faith Ringgold, Ursula von Rydingsvard, which I mentioned previously. All excellent choices.
There are so many more!
[ See this older post: 19 Art Documentaries You Shouldn't Miss ]
I hope this inspires you to start an art documentary group or perhaps join the Art Biz Accelerator where we talk about the ideas we come across in our documentary viewings. See ArtBizAccelerator.com
Let me know what your favorites are by leaving a comment below.