Review: Reality show ‘The Exhibit’ turns art into a blood sport

Moment ago, a study showed that the strongest marker for “making it” as an artist today is not talent or a master’s degree or group shows. What matters most, according to the research, is approval: how quickly an artist can secure institutional support in the form of a solo exhibition at a major gallery or museum. Everything else follows. There are obviously a few more stairs to climb.

That explains MTV and the Smithsonian Channel’s newest reality show, “The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist,” a show that turns endorsement into the ultimate prize. In six episodes, seven up-and-coming artists compete for $100,000 and an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Contenders range from rising stars (Baseera Khan, who has been reviewed in Artforum, Frieze and the New Yorker) to the up-and-coming (Misha Kahn, whose “Watermelon Party” was exhibited at Dries Van Noten’s LA flagship in 2021) to the established but neglected (Frank Buffalo Hyde, whose work is held by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe).

In a familiar formula, artists are given several hours to make a “commission” in response to a given theme — gender, social media — and their work is judged by a rotating panel of judges, including artist Adam Pendleton and author Kenny Schachter. After six weeks, an artist will reach a level of visibility that only major galleries usually provide. For artists who cannot depend on traditional platforms always working in their favor, the show offers a refuge from a damaging gallery system and an opportunity for them to expand their audience.

Yet these gladiatorial contests in the cultural arena are an implicit endorsement of the pernicious belief that culture is a blood sport. Artists already compete with each other for validation, resources and attention, and “The Exhibit” only exacerbates the problem by framing it as entertainment.

This is not the first show from this mold. In 2010, Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” produced by the company behind “Project Runway” and “Top Chef,” exploited a neat parallel between its endogenous artistic drama and its intimate ideas. reality show. The show also offered a $100,000 prize money as well as a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where a curator resigned in protest, citing the museum’s perception as “a party place and a celebrity hub.Critic Jerry Saltz apologized for his role as a judge in the first season, describing him asbad for art.” (He then returned for the next season.)

After winning the second and final season, Kymia Nawabi said Hyperallergic: “Unfortunately, the show hasn’t really affected my career in very obvious ways (yet). I thought there would be some galleries interested in my work: no. I thought I would make a lot of new sales: no.” Despite decent reviews, “Work of Art” canceled and was succeeded by the even shorter-lived “Gallery Girls,” which followed several forays into New York’s glamorous gallery scene and ended, tellingly, when a cast member chose a job at an upscale concierge over an internship at a prestigious art consultancy.

“The Exhibit” wisely keeps its institutional affiliation at a calculated distance. Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn’s director and chief judge of the show, opens the competition by describing the contemporary art museum as the Smithsonian’s “wild child.” Hosted by MTV’s Dometi Pongo, it’s certainly a bolder and more irreverent show than the sumptuous close-ups of wet colors and dim galleries would have you believe, more in line with the museum’s high-profile initiatives with contemporary artists such asBarbara Kruger and Nicolas Party. Following the less-than-fantastic craft tournaments like “The Great Pottery Throw Down” and “Blown Away,” the show seeks to cultivate a fun atmosphere previously dominated by weekly eliminations. In its frank embrace of sportsmanship, “The Exhibit” wants to renegotiate a parasocial relationship with reality TV and inject some much-needed civility into the rarefied and often forbidding province of High Art.

However, within 10 minutes factions and villains emerge as predictable tropes. Pedigree artists fall for MFA jargon as they chat with self-taught painters, who find camaraderie and motivation in being ostracized by the mainstream. sculptors and mixed media artists square off against painters and painters in a gentle parody of centuries of academic debate. Indigenous painter Frank Buffalo Hyde, for example, criticizes the attention given to young, institutionally sanctioned artists over those who have “done the work” long ago—a fair criticism, though one whose sketchy treatment here types the artist and creates an age. conflict.

Rivalry can be generative. It can sustain creativity over long careers and push the boundaries of artistic experimentation. But this sense of competition is frustratingly at odds with an issue-of-the-week format that expects artists to fashion timely (and readable) work to order.

Contestants are judged on their originality, quality of execution and strength of idea — a set of criteria so universal as to be virtually valueless. In the first project, which includes works on gender, Misha Kahn wants an overly ambitious resin sculpture of a banana (“a game of innovation,” says Schachter). Apparently unimpressed, Pendleton dismisses Jamaal Barber’s vaguely cubist portrait of a bisexual sitter as “redundant” and slams Gillian Mayer’s hormone-spewing olfactory work for failing to “activate the space.” Not only is this a familiar criticism, but it also offers no sense of vision and trajectory to its subjects. If the judges of “The Exhibit” themselves don’t even buy the show’s promise that the museum can play king for a new class of artists, why should we?

Each contestant could have received $100,000 for less than the production budget, and the show’s prize money doesn’t even match “Work of Art’s” for inflation. Baseera Khan, the most established artist of ‘The Exhibit’, has already had a good reception individual exposure at the Brooklyn Museum. What do they have to gain? The awards show is just one project: the winner’s sixth order for the season finale. While this isn’t the “exhibit of a lifetime” promised in the trailer, the holy grail of spectacle is sure to be, in Pongo’s words, “career-defining.”

“The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist”

Where: MTV

When: 10 pm Friday


Assessment: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)

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