Lights, Camera . . . Art! 9 Unmissable Art Documentaries 

Ai Wei Wei: According to what? at Hirshorn in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Steve Rhodes on Flickr. Ai Wei Wei: According to what? at Hirshorn in Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

Art documentaries are a great way to dive deeper into the stories of the artists and movements you love or to experience new ones you haven’t yet enjoyed. They often tell lesser-known stories or reveal exclusive insights into works of art that you might not catch when visiting a museum or gallery showcase, and they can remind us of the diverse and spectacular nature of the art world. Here we profile nine of our favorite art documentaries from recent years. From past masters to modern marvels, and from controversies to cutting-edge trends, these titles are perfect for your next highly cultured movie night.

Art Documentaries to Add To Your Watchlist

These documentaries, listed in the order of their release dates, reflect some of the best art-oriented films to be made in the past decade and a half. In addition to the notable names they discuss, an advantage of most of these documentaries is that they are readily accessible on streaming services.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Famed British street artist Banksy has earned a global reputation for his secrecy, but for the documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which Banksy takes center stage. A film that begins as a profile of the elusive artist himself, the narrative soon changes when his filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, becomes so enamored with the underground world of street art that he becomes an artist himself. Filled with twists and turns that highlight the often arbitrary trends of contemporary art, Exit Through the Gift Shop makes for compelling, delightful viewing. 

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

One of the most controversial dissidents of his generation, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has consistently used his creative genius to draw attention to the inequalities and injustices both in Chinese society and the wider world. He has stayed true to this cause even in the face of persecution and imprisonment – themes that lurk on the edge of the 2012 documentary, Never Sorry. This film follows the artist between 2008 and 2010, as he prepared for both a 2009 Munich exhibition and subsequently his now-acclaimed Sunflower Seeds (2010) for display at the Tate Modern. Offering an introspective look into Ai Weiwei’s career and life, this documentary reveals the strength of the artist’s character in his remorseless pursuit of art as a means of social activism despite repeated efforts by government forces to silence him (including his well-known imprisonment for nearly three months in 2011). Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an engaging look into the artist’s life that might inspire audiences to rethink the role of art as a means of activism. 

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012)

This film follows Serbian artist, Marina Abramovic, prior to her landmark 2010 performance exhibition, The Artist is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To prepare for this performance’s full days of sitting in the gallery space engaging with whoever sat across from the wooden table in front of her, Abramovic would sit for stretches of more than seven hours without rest. Her goal was to experiment with an extended performance across hours and days, so her training was essential to maintain the connection with her seated colleague, who would change depending on the whim of that individual. As the film charts this training – which would culminate in a three-month-long performance, during which Abramovic would engage with more than 1,000 different spectators, viewers also gain insight into Abramovic’s evolution as a performance artist and the shifting public opinion about the field over time. 

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Dutch Golden Age master Johannes Vermeer is world-renowned for his paintings that are so precise in their rendering that they almost have the definition of a photograph. Such intricacy is made all the more captivating because no one is quite certain how Vermeer created such exacting renderings. In “Tim’s Vermeer,” inventor and designer Tim Jenison set out to test one hypothesis: that Vermeer used a combination of lenses to capture such exacting and exquisite works. Captivating for its authenticity – Jenison sets out to recreate a Vermeer painting from scratch, including research into and recreation of all of the painting’s furnishings and costumes. Does he succeed? You’ll have to watch “Tim’s Vermeer” to find out.

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016)

To say that Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s work is explosive is not hyperbolic, as his use of gunpowder to activate many of his canvases has earned him accolades from across the art world. These works – and the brilliant burned canvases that remain after these pyrotechnics – become the core of the 2016 documentary, Sky Ladder. In this film, the audience journeys alongside Guo-Qiang as he creates the monumental work, Sky Ladder, which featured a ladder that stretched more than 1,600 feet into the sky to eventually be ignited against the night sky. Interspersed are aspects of the artist’s upbringing and career development, resulting in an inspiring and awesome documentary.

Loving Vincent (2017)

Dubbed the world’s first feature-length painted film, Loving Vincent takes viewers on a dramatic recap of the famed Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh’s final days. Equal parts mystery and artistry, this film’s instantly enjoyable plot offers viewers insights into the questions surrounding van Gogh’s untimely demise. Adding to the allure is that each vignette and character is based on van Gogh’s original paintings, each recreated like cels in an animated feature. Any fan of van Gogh or Post-Impressionism and sure to fall in love with this film. 

The Price of Everything (2018)

The volatile and unpredictable art market takes center stage in the gripping documentary, The Price of Everything. Incorporating interviews with artists from Jeff Koons to Larry Poons as well as curators and collectors, this documentary reveals the unyielding sway that money and status hold in the international art community. It juxtaposes artists still seeking to follow their passion against the ever-present pressure for success and blue chip-level sales all while posing thought-provoking questions for the viewer on their own relationship with art. 

Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art (2020)

What happens when a slew of fraudulent artworks are gobbled up by collectors in a rampant case of misrepresentation? Such is the central question in Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art, which centers on the true-life tale of Glafira Rosales, who approached the New York Knoedler Gallery with a collection of works for sale purportedly by famous artists like Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. The works themselves, the audience later discovers, were fake, but the documentary takes the viewer on a wild ride through the crazy series of circumstances that result in these fraudulent works entering some of the most prestigious art collections in the world. A fascinating tale that raises valuable questions about what makes a work of art “real.”

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021) 

Shedding long-overdue light on a hugely influential, yet oft-overlooked, facets of art’s history, the 2021 documentary, Black Art: In the Absence of Light, treats audiences to an artful blend of magnificent artwork and the challenging contexts in which it was created. Pivotal to the narrative of this documentary are artist David Driskell and art historian Martin Berger, who discuss the landmark 1976 exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as fundamental to wider conversations about the importance of the Black American artist within the global landscape of art today. This dialogue extends to the modern day, with insights and contributions provided by major figures in the contemporary art world including Kerry James Marshall and Faith Ringgold. Together, these facets combine to convey a brilliant point of reflection on the history of Black American art. 

Seeking More Screen Time? 

Art documentaries can inspire us to think about art and its makers in new ways, and these nine films definitely don’t disappoint in this regard. Covering a lot of artistic ground and offering perspectives from both experts and the artists themselves, these art documentaries convey an authenticity of narrative that may be the springboard to more viewing – on screen or in the museum gallery – or even collecting.