top 5 art documentaries on netflix to watch instantly

I love Netflix.  Perfect for those rainy Sunday afternoons when you would rather be in a museum, Netflix can bring the art to you.  Available to watch instantly you will find an assortment of art documentaries and here I’ve assembled my top picks.  These are my top 5 not just because of the art, but because they connect you to the people behind the art.  Whether they be artists or collectors, these documentaries explore why people devote their lives, money and souls to their passion.   Let’s face it, art people are also interesting and a bit crazy and gaining insight into their lives is fascinating.


The Art of the Steal via Netflix


By the end of this film, I was raging mad.  I wanted to go Philadelphia and give all those rich art thieves a piece of my mind, which in my mind means that this was a highly successful documentary.

This is the story of one man, Dr. Albert Barnes, who amassed the most important collection of impressionist,  post-impressionist and early modern works in the world–collecting most before the big museums  (MoMA, the MET, the Philadelphia Museum of Art).  The story turns tragic and controversial when the stipulations of his will were ignored and the fight for control over his collection gets ugly.

What makes this documentary so compelling is that it exposed a seriously wicked scandal and named names.  Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that the judge who initially ruled on it will hear arguments to reopen the Barnes Foundation case, due mostly to the film and the people featured in it.

Waste Land via Netflix


The people featured in Waste Land will blow you away more than the art, although the art isn’t half bad if you like Vik Muniz.  Catadores work in the largest landfill in the world outside of Rio and collect recyclable material, while analyzing the debris of all sectors of Rio society and gaining a glimpse into their lives through their trash.  Muniz has the idea to profile some of the workers and incorporate them into his practice, making them and the trash the subjects of the work.  Together, they construct these works of art and through this process they change their lives for the better.  All proceeds from the sale of the works at auction went back to the catadores and these dignified and wise workers use the money to get out of the landfill.  The film was also nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.

Herb and Dorothy via Netflix


Old people are cute, especially when they amass a collection of 4,782 conceptual and minimal works of art on the limited budgets of a postal worker and a librarian.  While their collecting obsession bordered on hoarding (their 1 bedroom was packed to the max), their support of artists both monetarily and emotionally allowed many artists to develop into the big names we know and love today.  Their collection has work from Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Donald Judd, Richard Tuttle, Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, On Kawara, Jeff Koons and many others.  Their tiny apartment was so cramped that they decided to donate their collection to the National Gallery in Washington D.C.  A program was also developed to give out 50 of works to 50 states – the details of which can be viewed on this website.  Herb and Dorothy’s cats are also featured in the film – for you pet lovers. 

Exit Through the Gift Shop via Netflix


Don’t watch this film because you are joining on the street art bandwagon.  Watch it for all the questions that arise.  What is art?  Who can define what art is?  Who is an artist and who isn’t?  How much appropriation is too much?  How do audiences perceive street art vs. art in museums?  Do they find street artists more accessible?  What does that say about the future of museums?  How does the general public define art?  How is taste formed?  Is the art world really this ridiculous?  Who gets the last laugh?

What really happens behind closed doors at Disneyland?  

This films is funny, it’s ridiculous, it features men with significantly large egos, it makes you question all of the above and more.  Thierry, who goes from documentary filmmaker to faker to artist?,  is a complex “character” who you will re-evaluate your opinion of throughout the film…is he really smart or really dumb?  I’m still not sure.

Exit Through the Gift Shop was also nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child via Netflix


After watching this film, I felt robbed.  I missed out on the good ol’ days in NYC when it was dirty and gritty and the art world was actually exciting.  Coupled with great music and raw imagery and unseen interviews with the artist, this documentary really gives you a feel for the city back in the late 70s, early 80s.  It definitely captures the humanity of the artist and attempts to explain his creative genius.  What is incredible is how fast and quickly he worked — never lacking inspiration and creating thousands of works in his short career.  The film also has many shots of SAMO street poetry around the city.  I like this one:

[ ] SAMO©…

Honorable mentions include Alice Neel for it’s great one liners and family dysfunction and the Universe of Keith Haring, similar to Basquiat as they both were working at the same time and both died around the same time and Our City Dreams, a documentary that features Swoon, Marina Abramovic, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, and Nancy Spero, as well as some nice shots of the city.

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