Our #1 FAQ: How does Art21 choose artists?

Color-correcting a John Baldessari painting at our online facility during the final phase of post-production.

Color-correcting a John Baldessari painting at an online facility during the final phase of post-production.

The most frequently asked question at Art21 has always been “How do you pick the artists?” As a current summer intern, I G-Chatted with Associate Curator Wesley Miller hoping to learn the answer to this question myself. Together, we discuss the selection process, episode themes, and the evolution of the series.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:22PM

So I’m pretty new here at Art21. I just started my internship here 3 weeks ago.

wes-gchatWes
4:23PM

I know…I feel like we haven’t even had a chance to talk!

jamie-gchatJamie
4:23PM

Well you seem like a pretty busy guy!

wes-gchatWes
4:23PM

Today’s a big day—we’re laying the final shows down to tape. That is why I haven’t been in the office.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:23PM

Oh, exciting!

wes-gchatWes
4:24PM

Nerve-wracking is more like it. I’m sitting 2 feet from an LCD screen, looking for errors for 9 hours.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:24PM

Yikes, sounds grueling!

wes-gchatWes
4:24PM

It is…you start imagining things.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:24PM

But you’ll feel so good when it’s done, right?

wes-gchatWes
4:24PM

It does feel good…What’s strange about it is that we finish it this week, and then basically I don’t really look at it again this way until it airs. And by then, in October, it’s like: did we make that?

jamie-gchatJamie
4:25PM

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Like many other Art:21 fans, I have long wondered: how do you choose artists for each season?

wes-gchatWes
4:29PM

Because we work with so few artists per season, oftentimes these artists are ones that Susan Sollins, Art21’s Executive Director, and I have been following for years. The total lack of artists on TV in the United States makes it fairly easy to focus on people who have been major figures in the art world for the past 40 years, and yet the public still may not know about them. At the same time, the focus on the show is on the here-and-now. That’s how a single season might include an artist with an exceptionally long career, like John Baldessari, and a younger artist like Cao Fei, whose entire body of work has quite literally been made in the twenty-first century.

For any season, we’ll consider around 300 artists and acquaint ourselves with their newest work and upcoming projects. We survey a group of around 50 curators and museum directors, our Curatorial Advisory Council, and artists from past seasons to see whom they recommend and what the world looks like from their perspectives.

After all of this, it comes down to Susan and myself locking ourselves in the conference room for a couple of months and asking, “Will the world be a less rich place if we don’t profile this artist?” My corollary to that is, “Do I want to think about this work for the rest of my time here at Art21?” as we regularly maintain relationships with artists beyond the TV show.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:31PM

I noticed that things seemed rather synergistic this season: Florian Maier-Aichen was just in the Carnegie International, Mary Heilmann just had a solo show at the New Museum, and they just mounted a Yinka Shonibare MBE survey at the Brooklyn Museum….Is this coincidental?

wes-gchatWes
4:33PM

Well, yes…context matters: and that’s the second and, quite frankly, hardest part. If you wonder about these artists, it often has to do with the question, “Is this the right moment?” Because Art21 only profiles somebody once for the television show, the question becomes is this the moment to document this artist? Will this moment provide a window onto not only an artist’s work, but also this point in history?

There’s no particular reason, say, Jeff Koons or Paul McCarthy or Mary Heilmann weren’t included in the first season. But I think for each of these artists, it’s great that it’s happening now. Jeff Koons is phenomenal, period, but Jeff Koons and his recent project at Versailles…that’s cinematic!

jamie-gchatJamie
4:34PM

So very true! Ok, so which comes first—the themes or the artists?

wes-gchatWes
4:38PM

Typically, we begin with four artists and maybe one theme or word. Then we pretend, “If each of these artists were in a different episode, who would we put around them?” And then people get moved around and themes start to emerge out of the work. It’s rarely top-down; we read a lot of interviews with artists, attend a lot of lectures, and try to be attentive to a vernacular way of talking about art. The thematic episodes emerge more out of what’s being said than, say, deciding a concept like “Fantasy” is important and hunting for artists to fit that mold.

What’s most difficult is that one of the goals of the TV show is to put artists together in surprising ways—against the grain of typical demography, media, or geography—and out of this clash draw a sense of continuity or unity that makes a compelling story. We’re not trying to match people, but rather look at process, ideas, and life simultaneously and in doing so, accidents and chance start to become enhanced by intention and narrative. We’re after a diversity of life experience, practices, and approaches to contemporary art in a single episode, and part of the struggle is making that dissonance feel natural rather than artificially constructed (which it both is—the world really is that diverse—and isn’t—we decided to throw these folks together, who may not even know each other).

jamie-gchatJamie
4:39PM

The themes seem to really help people approach the ideas behind the work and draw parallels.

wes-gchatWes
4:41PM

That’s the goal. But I also think working on it for two years is part of what makes that possible—you slow cook it. There are so many sub-themes and themes that cut across episodes and seasons, themes that we don’t spell out in the title of a show. Sometimes it takes years for even me to discover them all. And the shows themselves change over time, as we change, as the world changes, as language changes, as art changes. I’m waiting for the day when Season One, which we started to shoot in 1999, looks like 1999—when you can see it as a distinct moment in time. For whatever reason I still think it looks a little too contemporary, right now.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:42PM

It’s crazy to think that Art:21 has taken me from 10th grade until now, when I’m holding a graduate degree in the arts and working for you! I guess it’s been quite an influence.

wes-gchatWes
4:43PM

That’s been an odd thing as a curator to experience, that continual present tense that I think some audiences feel with the shows. Documentary films can be very emotional for people—they have a disarming sense of accessibility—and I’m finding out they have a different shelf-life than an exhibition. So I often find myself having to take care of something we made 10 years ago! Who does that with an art exhibition curated 10 years ago? (Maybe art historians…) Typically an exhibition comes down; it’s an ephemeral thing. We might get the catalog, but we never really have access to that exhibition, in person, again. With a TV show or movie all you have to do is press play and there it is, unchanged and immediate, even though the context in which you’re viewing it has changed.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:43PM

Funny. I did notice that there are fewer artists featured in this season than there were in Season 4. What’s the reasoning behind this?

wes-gchatWes
4:45PM

There are several reasons. We wanted to mix things up and do a few episodes with longer segments. It’s a creative challenge to make an 18-minute story vs. a 12-minute story. But also, this is first season we decided to go fully international, so it was a practical and financial consideration. I think we were really lucky that we featured a few less people this year—it timed well with the worldwide belt-tightening. But ultimately we did it for creative reasons, first and foremost.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:46PM

It’s always nice when your creative direction and your budget align! I’m curious as to how the artists respond to being chosen.  Are they excited? Has anyone ever turned you down?

wes-gchatWes
4:49PM

We get a lot of different reactions, and it’s changed over time. The first season, we had nothing to show, so we just cold-called people and literally asked, “Want to make a movie?” In some ways, the making of that season was more experimental and, in a sense, freer, because we were all naïve, both as producers and participants.

Now, sometimes, people have friends who have been in the show, or other artists they admire, and they’ll say, “I want my show to be like so and so’s”—which is sometimes difficult to deal with, that degree of self-consciousness and media awareness. We, of course, are looking for something fresh and authentic, not staged.

People have turned us down, for all kinds of reasons, from an illness to having made a promise to themselves to never appear on TV. I can appreciate that, because I’m never on camera either. For the most part, I’d say we have a very high rate of participation because we do our homework, ask around, have pre-conversations, and are always after that “choice” moment, so it feels easy and like kismet for all involved (even if making the shows themselves is never easy).

jamie-gchatJamie
4:50PM

Do artists—famous or not—ever call and request to be on the series?

wes-gchatWes
4:53PM

Oh, of course, and I think that’s really flattering. It rarely works out that way, but I like to get information all year round to feel connected to what’s going on, what people are making and thinking about, and how they perceive what we do. I’ve been involved with Art21 before it was on the air, so unlike you, I don’t know what it’s like to have that objective first impression. I often hear now from people who saw the first season in high school or college, like yourself, who are now teachers using the television series with their own classes. It’s come full-circle, which is just so amazing and so humbling and a responsibility worth having.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:54PM

You’re obviously doing great work!

wes-gchatWes
4:54PM

Thanks. Great talking to you too.  And let’s do this again sometime.

jamie-gchatJamie
4:54PM

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Wes – it’s been very insightful!

Jamie Leonardi is a recent NYC transplant with a newly-minted Master of Arts Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Her interests include contemporary visual culture, gender studies, and Pittsburgh’s (champion!) sports teams.


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