TORONTO — The contemporary art world can be an intimidating one, with its mysterious nature, sticker shock, and gallerists who are sometimes hesitant to offer a price list or even say hello to patrons.
"I used to walk into an art gallery and say, 'Oh, that's beautiful, how much is that?' 'Sold.' 'I didn't see a red dot,'" recalls Toronto filmmaker Barry Avrich.
"They just don't want me to have it ... because I'm not important to them as a collector. They can't say, 'That beautiful painting is in Barry Avrich's collection.'
"They're very careful in terms of who they're going to sell the art to."
Avrich explores such mysteries of the contemporary art world — with the aim of making it more accessible and understandable — with his new documentary, "Blurred Lines."
The film, which is screening at Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, interviews a host of power players in the industry, including renowned artists Julian Schnabel, Marina Abramovic and Canada's own Michael Snow.
Other interviewees include collectors, museum directors, heads of auction houses, prominent international art gallerists and art fair organizers.
"We cover the spectrum to try and show how this world fits together, because it's not obvious — and sometimes it's intentionally not obvious," says Jonas Prince, the film's producer, who is also a collector and a trustee of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
"What is art has changed, what is the job of a gallerist is changing, the auction houses no longer earn their livelihood completely from the auction.... Collectors are now showing their art in their own buildings so they become their own museums."
The film starts in September 2008 with the collapse of financial services firm Lehman Brothers. Just 24 hours after the meltdown, works by British artist Damien Hirst sold for almost US$200 million at Sotheby's in London.
"That says something about art," said Avrich. "There's always going to be that group of people who are buying and collecting and selling. We don't know if the art world is completely recession-proof but for some, it certainly is, and that number is staggering."
As the film explores the commodification of contemporary art, it looks at how artists gain credibility, how the prices of works can skyrocket, and why collectors collect.
"You can go into a Ferrari dealership, put down your American Express Black Card to buy a Ferrari and they'll sell it to you," says Montreal-born Avrich, who has made several films on show-business moguls, including producer Harvey Weinstein and Penthouse founder Bob Guccione.
"If you go into an art gallery in New York and say, 'I want to buy a certain artist,' they won't sell it to you, most likely because they don't know who you are as a collector and that will impact on the price of the art if they're selling it to an unknown collector."
Many galleries also don't want someone buying their work who is going to "flip" it and put it up for auction the next day, notes Prince.
"They don't want the prices being subject to the vagaries of the market," he says. "No artist wants their prices to go up, because what goes up sometimes can go down. So there is this unregulated attempt to, in a quite appropriate way, manage the career of an artist."
Avrich says a lot of the artists they spoke with "do want the art world to be more accessible."
"There are certain dealers that want to keep it shadowy and auction houses that don't want to necessarily lift up the lid, so there was some hesitation in the beginning," he says, noting "a film like this has not been made in the past."
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press