Another Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance at an Art Career

“The Exhibit,” a reality TV picture of the art world, varnishes the sheer desperation found at almost every level, and the complexity of art itself.

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By Travis Diehl

There’s a certain impurity to being an artist in the 21st century. Your collectors could be paying with dirty money. Your exhibitions often wear corporate logos. And your public image might even require the strategic indignity of going on TV.

For reality television, “The Exhibit” is awfully realistic.

The six-part series, a joint venture of MTV and the Smithsonian Channel, has its finale this Friday. Seven rising artists have competed for a grand prize of $100,000 and a solo exhibition (which everyone seems obliged to call an exhibit) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. They’ve been judged by established art-world figures including Adam Pendleton, a multidisciplinary artist who combines linguistics, painting and political action; Abigail DeVille, who creates sculptural environments from urban debris; and Kenny Schachter, introduced on the show with unintended humor as an “artist, writer, teacher and pioneer in the NFT space.”

Egos flare and tears flow, a little — this is no battle royale. In fact, there are no weekly eliminations: Everyone, according to the poised lead judge and Hirshhorn director, Melissa Chiu, deserves to be there. And everyone comes off looking like a decent human being. The drama typical of the genre has been sanded down. Artists and curators will recognize, and the casual viewer might be intrigued by, this chic little slice of the culture industry. Those seeking a quick hit of schadenfreude will be disappointed. Which is probably why “The Exhibit” has averaged roughly a tenth the viewership of the first season of Bravo’s “Work of Art,” its more sensational predecessor from a decade ago.

Where “The Exhibit” differs most from “Work of Art” is in the professionalism of the contestants. The hopefuls range from Jennifer Warren, a largely self-taught painter from Chicago who, according to her website, “explores themes around nature, beauty, and the Black body”; to Clare Kambhu, a high school art teacher from Queens with an MFA from Yale who depicts the structures of the education system. The intellectual and technical skill they bring to bear on their weekly “commissions” makes for visually pleasing and conceptually solid paintings, sculptures and prints. They’re good at describing their intentions and taking criticism.

The upshot of their experience is their reluctance to step outside their honed styles. The artists know the prompts in advance, and come prepared with materials, tools and plans, which they execute for the cameras in a studio decoratively stocked with paints and brushes. Misha Kahn, for instance, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design’s furniture program, is a brutally effective fabricator, employing everything from inflatable pool toys to electric motors to a virtual reality headset to make his sculptures. In the intro episode, the artists give tours of their home studios. Kahn’s “robust” workshop in Brooklyn has several assistants, a row of 3-D printers, and a robot arm that paints.

The size of their ateliers varies, but these artists are successful enough to understand what’s at stake at the Hirshhorn, and what’s not. Jamaal Barber, a printmaker from Georgia, contributed an illustration to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Frank Buffalo Hyde, a painter and member of the Onondaga/Niimíipuu (Nez Percé) people, has 13 pieces in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Bravo’s series dangled the prize of a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum (in reality, a single gallery that the critic Karen Rosenberg called a “glorified broom closet” in these pages). One contestant on “The Exhibit,” Baseera Khan, had a solo show at that selfsame institution during filming. Not that these artists aren’t struggling; you just wouldn’t know it. That’s the elephant in the Sculpture Garden. MTV’s picture of the art world varnishes the sheer desperation and insecurity found at almost every level of the game.

Who won either of the two seasons of “Work of Art”? I can’t remember either. Not even the Turner Prize guarantees a life of name recognition, let alone awards and solo shows sponsored by the likes of BMW, Red Bull and Hugo Boss. The prize money is real enough. But the idea that winning a contest guarantees a long career is unrealistic, maybe even irresponsible. There’s no arriving, only striving. Indeed, Khan’s Brooklyn Museum show was also a prize, sponsored by the UOVO art storage company. Pay close attention to “The Exhibit,” or scan the contestants’ CVs, and you can discern the contours of a midcareer life in the arts: a craggy, variegated landscape of grants, commissions and awards that sustain artists through the feast and famine of the “meritocratic” art world.

Add MTV and the Smithsonian Channel (and their parent entity, Paramount Global) to the list of brands funding artists. In a way, their partnership is complimentary — art can be sexy and rebellious (MTV) as well as highbrow and profound (Smithsonian). Nadim Amiry, vice president of original series at MTV Entertainment Studios, described in an email the challenges of bringing art to reality TV: “Like with any skill-based competition series,” he wrote, “whether it be designing dresses or baking cakes or creating works of art, the challenge for producers remains the same. It’s in providing the audience with enough information and knowledge to be able to play along and feel that they too can evaluate the work on the show.”

Kate Gibbs, a representative for the Hirshhorn, added that “the Hirshhorn is open to all, 364 days a year. Our lobby, galleries and programs reflect a broad appeal.”

Yet the packaging of “The Exhibit” seems too tight for the artists to flourish; the mass audience and the ticking clock work against complexity.

In an episode of “Work of Art,” Andres Serrano was a guest judge — and his passionate, provocative “Piss Christ,” denounced by conservative senators in the culture wars of the ’90s, had an extended cameo. That week’s theme was “shock.”

“The Exhibit” is a show for a more sensitive time. The prompts don’t titillate; they delight, educate and heal. The seven contestants address Covid, social media, gender and justice — as Chiu says, “the most pressing issues of today” — and they do so with care. For the most part they turn in safe, competent work about incredibly volatile subjects. Barber, one of the more emotionally naked artists, faced the topic of justice with a wooden relief covered in flaring red circles representing the 41 bullets police fired at Amadou Diallo in 1999 (19 struck him) — a piece so abstract and colorful that the tragedy disappeared.

Barber’s commission is just one of many missed chances to slow down and discuss what, if anything, makes art worthwhile. Instead, the judges’ critiques and deliberations feel padded with clichés about creativity, storytelling and changing minds. An MTV News correspondent, Dometi Pongo, confesses in Episode 4 that, “as the layperson” among art world acolytes, he finds contestant Jillian Mayer’s grungy, gravel-strewn kinetic sculpture “grotesque.” Why not mention the fraught and fascinating role of beauty in art? Not that I expect a history lesson. But the debate that follows feels watered down. Chiu patiently explains that beauty isn’t “really one of the criteria that we use to understand or even appreciate the work of contemporary art.” Schachter jumps in: “But looking good is something still.” “Looking good is something,” Chiu concedes, “but it’s not about the beautiful.” “But it’s not not about that,” says Schachter. Then they change the subject.

“The Exhibit” wants to convey art’s power and mystique without estranging the uninitiated. The show seems anxious that no one will care about art without the artificial drama of a competition, but that downplays whatever drama actually exists in art. Yet the contest’s conceit feels halfhearted. The show’s impulse to comfort is so urgent that I suspected the series might end with everyone winning, the way the 2019 Turner Prize went to all four finalists. The truth is, all seven of these artists do win “The Exhibit” — final outcome aside — just by sticking around, and rejecting the synthetic blood lust of most reality TV.

You may ask why respectable professionals would go on such a show in the first place, or why a respected museum would host one. This, maybe despite itself, is the unflinching realism of “The Exhibit.” When the art world is set up as a gantlet of competitions, no artist or institution can afford not to chase the next once-in-a-lifetime chance.

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