In ‘The Price of Everything,’ an insider’s view of the contemporary art market | AspenTimes.com

In ‘The Price of Everything,’ an insider’s view of the contemporary art market

The artist George Condo at work in the new documentary "The Price of Everything."

How do you set a price for the priceless? Who decides a Basquiat painting is worth $110.5 million? And why would someone pay that much for it?

The intelligent and accessible new documentary "The Price of Everything" goes to the source and asks these questions of the art world's top collectors, dealers, auctioneers and artists.

Directed by the twice-Oscar-nominated documentarian Nathaniel Kahn and produced by part-time Aspenite Jennifer Stockman, it will play on HBO this fall. The Aspen Institute hosts an early screening tonight.

Stockman, former president of the board of trustees at the Guggenheim museums, said she was drawn to make the film out of concern for how she's seen the art world transform over the past 25 years and the emphasis — both in the press and in art circles — on stratospheric price tags.

"It came out of curiosity and concern about what was going on in the art world and the fact that people were starting to look at art primarily as an asset," said Stockman, who produced the film along with Debi Wisch and Carla Solomon. "I was interested in when it happened. It's been escalating exponentially over the last decade, but what might have created this?"

She and the filmmaking team started talking to artists, auctioneers, collectors, critics and dealers to track the history of this boom. The film points to the October 1973 Sotheby's auction of Robert Scull's collection as a rough beginning. The auction sold off Scull's contemporary holdings for unheard-of — at the time — prices. An archive film clip shows Scull celebrating with the conceptual artist Robert Rauschenberg on the auction floor and explaining to the artist how rich this sale would make him in the future.

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"The film wasn't made for the art world, per se, it was made for a general audience," Stockman said. "We were interested in sharing our exclusive, privileged world."

The subjects in "The Price of Everything" range from figures like Jeff Koons, the penny-stock salesman and marketing genius-turned conceptual artist, to Larry Poons, a one-time star who fell off the blue-chip art map due to his refusal to play to the market. Prominent artists like Njideka Akunyili Crosby, George Condo and Marilyn Minter — who has been spotted in Aspen this week — also give their takes.

It also includes a fascinating portrait of Sotheby's as the auction house prepares for a major contemporary art auction, with Amy Cappellazzo — chairman of the Sotheby's fine art division — explaining how they market art and artists before they hit the block.

Stockman said access was the biggest hurdle for the film. Getting artists to talk about money and convincing dealers and collectors to be honest about the market is a tall order.

"It's one thing for someone to agree to talk to you, it's another for them to open up and really reveal who they are," she said. "Most understood that we were not doing a 'gotcha' film. … The idea was to not be judgmental, to do a deep and exploratory film."

With a clear-eyed and objective journalistic approach, the film shows the state of the art world to viewers and lets them decide what they think.

Auctioneer Simon de Pury makes probably the best argument in favor of exorbitantly priced art early on, noting that cultural artifacts will only be preserved if they're seen to have monetary value: "Art and money have always gone hand-in-hand," he says. "It's very important for good art to be expensive. You only protect things that are valuable."

On the other side, the octogenarian painter Gerhard Richter, examining a collection of his works for sale, sees their prices as vulgar: "It isn't good when this is the value of a house. … Money is dirty."

A handful of Aspen figures show up in the film as well, including the always colorful collector Stefan Edlis, who gives brilliant and brutally honest assessments from a collector's perspective. At one point, he explains to the camera how a "juicy" bit of paint in an Andy Warhol work translates into value. The art on the walls of Edlis and Gael Neeson's Chicago home is offered up as a case study in the cartoonish inflation of art prices, including a Jasper Johns painting that sold for $135,000 in the 1960s, which Edlis bought for $10 million and is now valued at $100 million.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has screened at festivals around the country since then. It will have a limited theatrical release this fall and will be broadcast Nov. 12 on HBO.

Today's screening comes as the art world descends on the Roaring Fork Valley for the Aspen Art Museum's Art Crush events and the annual Anderson Ranch Arts Center art auction.

"The Price of Everything" is the second film Stockman has produced, following "Love, Cecil" about Hollywood costume designer Cecil Beaton. Making "The Price of Everything" took six years. After this long and intense process, Stockman said, she's taking a break and considering her next film.

"This was a passion project," she said.

As for where the art market will go from here — further into the stratosphere or toward a crash — that's in the eye of the beholder.

"Of course, it is a bubble," de Pury says in the film. "Bubbles make beautiful things. Just keep it floating — don't burst it."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘The Price of Everything,’ presented by the Aspen Institute

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Thursday, Aug. 2, 7 p.m.

How much: $20

Tickets: Sold out

More info: Director Nathaniel Kahn and producer Jennifer Stockman will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion; aspeninstitute.org