Art 21: New York Artists Up Close and Personal

Art21 lauches their own version of a summer "reality" series following contemporary artists
Looking out on the media landscape, it seems that no person, topic, or thematic area is off limits to reality television. I remember thinking that last summer when Bravo debuted “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” Modelled on the now familiar format of other competition based reality programs—“America’s Next Top Model”, “The Apprentice”, and “Project Runway” to name but a few—the ten episode series followed aspiring contemporary artists compete to win $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Admittedly I was drawn into the series and even found moments of critical discussion that helped viewers glimpse how artists navigate the difficulties of the studio crit and the demands of producing art under tight deadlines (they had Jerry Saltz and Bill Powers on the show’s jury  for goodness sake! See what Saltz thought of that experience here). Even so, the requisite reality TV editing which carefully constructs the high drama and conflicts needed to capture viewers attention appeared very contrived along with the eye-roll inducing catch phrase “Your work of art didn’t work for us” that dispatched the “losers” from the show. In the end, I had doubts that anyone could make a reality show that truly captured the inner workings of the art world.

"Work of Art" contestants awaiting their final crits. Jerry Saltz is pictured at far left. Note the
Hollywood lighting and wardrobe. I can assure you most artists I know don't generally dress like this either.
(image courtesy: Vulture
My opinion however shifted when I heard of Art21’s plans to launch a new online documentary series of their own. Titled “New York Close Up”, the series will debut on June 16th and will follow the lives of ten artists in the first decade of their professional career as they live and work in New York City. As many of you know, Art21 has since 2001 been a respected non-profit contemporary art organization producing PBS series, books, and resources profiling important contemporary artists from around the world. Having earned numerous awards and prizes from both educational and film-making bodies, Art21 is routinely utilized by art historians in the classroom to help provide dynamic visual content and artist interviews to students.

From Art21’s own dedicated website to the show, it is clear that they approach they will be taking with “New York Close Up” is aimed at bringing about a more intimate and personal look at the real lives of emerging artists: “Structured as an open-ended cinematic collaboration, Art21  is partnering with local artists to imagine new ways of telling stories about their creative process, political and aesthetic philosophies, personal backgrounds and community perspectives. Presented online as a suite of interdependent and experimental short films published over several years, this original Web series chronicles today’s artists as their works, ideas and lives evolve over time. Motivated by the experiences, relationships, and opportunities afforded to artists at the start of their careers, the series provides a unique perspective and behind-the-scenes guidebook for viewers to navigate the complex and emerging cultural geography of New York City. With artists serving as informal guides, the series captures the realities of living and working in the city, featuring: homes and studios, live performances, exhibitions, residencies, day jobs, nightlife, and social scenes.”

So far, Art 21 has released two teaser clips (see above and below) and I am truly intrigued. The feature artists also represent a diverse range of talents from all conceivable areas of contemporary art production: Lucas BlalockMartha ColburnKeltie FerrisLaToya Ruby FrazierTommy HartungRashid JohnsonKalup LinzyShana MoultonMariah Robertson, and Mika Tajima. If nothing else, I hope that the series can bridge that gap in reality programming where the banalities and real-world obstacles of an individual’s life are made more a part of the final representation. Interestingly enough, Art21 has chosen to call their program a documentary film series, distancing themselves from the lingo associating their project with a show like “Work of Art” (Oprah has done something similar on the new OWN channel with her “docu-series”).  Best of all, the series will be launching episodes on-line and focus on particular artist stories each week. I look forward to seeing how the final episodes shape up and what the discussions around Art21’s efforts will be. Stay tuned. 

"Close Up" | Teaser | Art21 2011 Project from Art21 on Vimeo.