The Real Story: Laurie Simmons Interviews Art21 Executive Director Susan Sollins

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Season 4 artist Laurie Simmons recently sat down with Art21’s Executive Director Susan Sollins to uncover the story of how Art21 began and the experience of filming 86 of today’s most thought-provoking artists.

LAURIE SIMMONS: I am Laurie Simmons with Founder and Executive Director of Art21, Susan Sollins. It is Summer 2009.

SUSAN SOLLINS: You are such a pro.

LS: Well, you trained me, right?

After 20 years of working with art and artists, what made you think artists themselves would make for interesting TV?

SS: In general, when artists are interviewed in public settings or on film, I would find the result stiff, academic, or too theoretical. Sometimes these situations are more about the interviewer than the artist. I always had all sorts of questions that were never asked—or answered—unless I happened to be talking with an artist directly—like with you, Laurie, right now. This is a moment when things can be revealed. Most people don’t get a chance to talk with artists. You might see the work, but you’re remote from the person. I wanted to bring these experiences together. I thought it could be possible to make something for television that would provide people with a more complete understanding of artists’ methods and thinking.

LS: Well, toss me a question, one of those burning questions you wanted to ask with this idea of revealing something.

SS: Well, something simple—are you interested in beauty? Is beauty important to you? Do you ever think about or play with beauty? Is it a factor in what you do? For years beauty is a topic that has not been talked about. What is beauty for you—if it interests you at all? And what is beauty today?

LS: And yet that’s just a fraction of the way that you divided up the segments of Art21 series and the subjects that you’ve touched on. Beauty is…

SS: Well, it’s a subtext.

LS: A subtext, one of the many.

SS: I’m interested in the real voice of the artist. I want the artists to tell their stories.

LS: So you’re looking for the real story?

SS: I am looking for the real story.

LS: Walk me through the steps toward the creation of Art21.

SS: Near the end of my tenure as director of iCI, Independent Curators International, around 1995 or ’96, I was approached by WNET/Thirteen to consult on the visual art component of a series they were developing called City Arts. It covered many things—from a new work on the Broadway stage to a new museum exhibition in New York City.

I thought, “I don’t know anything about television.” They showed me a sculpture they had filmed and I was appalled. The camera was extremely agitated and it moved rapidly all over the sculpture; it was enough to give you vertigo.

I didn’t think I would know what to say to them, but in fact I did. All the looking at contemporary art, video art, film, and watching TV—particularly Law and Order at that time—provided me with the instincts or knowledge I didn’t know I had. I immediately said, “You know, you don’t look at sculpture that way…that’s the wrong way to film it.”  So, I served as consultant for this series for quite a while, and then began to seriously learn about broadcast television.

LS: How difficult was it to convince PBS that a show about artists could be viewed by a broad TV audience?

SS: Well, I had an idea that there is something different that could be done on television for contemporary art and artists. I had made a good friend through the consultancy for WNET/Thirteen, Glenn Dubose, and he liked the idea. I took him over to MoMA for lunch, so he could look at the garden…

LS: Good choice.

SS: …to pitch the idea. He said, “Well, write that up.” I wrote it up and gave it to him. He wanted to know more—what would something like this look like?

Laurie, it is so funny that we’re talking about this. I think I’ve told you this story before, because you were the artist for the first description I wrote about Art21.

LS: But I ended up in Season Four.

SS: I know, I know. Isn’t that strange? It was the year that you had an exhibition that traveled to the Baltimore Museum.

LS: Right, 1997.

SS: Yep, and that’s when I was writing the first description. One of the questions was, what kind of story would be told? And I thought of you getting on the train with Tip and your daughters, who were maybe 5 and 11, going to Baltimore. The girls would be so excited that you had this big gallery with your work in it. I imagined them leaping, twirling, and giddy with excitement because they were with their mom and their dad and going to the Baltimore Museum, and there was mom’s show.

LS: That’s just what we did. That’s really what happened, but you weren’t there.

SS: I wasn’t there. But I imagined it.

LS: How funny.

SS: And so that was the description of what a segment, an Art21 segment, might include. The idea was that you and I would talk about your work with the Baltimore Museum exhibition as the focus. So, this was one of the scenes.

LS: So you really were interested in the place for an artist where the personal, the private, and the work life intersect.

SS: Well, yes, but in that first description, that probably had a lot to do with you and your family at the time. And there are some instances in the series where that happens. And there are other times when it doesn’t. But I was interested in the life of the artist and that the artist would not only be seen making work, because nobody knows how that happens, but would also be the spokesperson for his or her own ideas. They would reveal what they’re thinking about, not what a critic or curator is thinking about in reaction to the work.

LS: We’re now in Season Five. How many hours have there been altogether?

SS: I think we’re up to 20 hour-long episodes and have worked with around 86 artists. In terms of footage, I cannot even image how many hours we have shot to date. It is vast.

LS: That’s amazing. When you’re at the point you’re at now, when Season Five [just] premiered (all this work takes two years), do you get a chance to take a breather to think and reflect on what you’ve accomplished? Or you jump right into Season Six?

SS: We are constantly moving forward. People don’t realize that Art21 is NOT a production company; it is a non-profit contemporary art organization that runs year-round. We have to raise funds for everything we do, like any other non-profit. Obviously, we produce the television series, but we also create so many other resources like our websites, a companion book for each season, Educators’ Guides, a teacher institute, and this blog.

Art21 also creates other art education opportunities. A new pilot we recently developed is called Art21 Educators, where we brought teachers from around the country and will work with them for a year to develop ways to bring contemporary art into their curriculum. Keep in mind we are also making films year-round, short videos that we put online. They are all over the place—YouTube, iTunes, ArtBabble, Blip.tv—everywhere you can think of.

LS: They are all over YouTube.

SS: And the Art21 series itself is on Hulu and iTunes too. Anyway, there’s never any time to sit back and reflect on what we’ve achieved.

LS: Did you think this thing, Art21, would grow exponentially like it has or that you would receive all these awards? Did you have any idea?

SS: I had no idea. For example, with something like receiving the Peabody Award, I didn’t even know what it had stood for until I got to the awards ceremony. Art21 was simply something I really, really wanted to do. It just was too irresistible. Once the people at PBS said in a preliminary way, “Yes, we’re interested in this, we’re going to find a way to broadcast it,” Art21 as a non-profit organization was inevitable.

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