I love art,” says actress Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing Carrie in the long-running TV series Sex and the City. “I know virtually nothing about it; I’m an enthusiast. But it can be an intimidating world. People think of it as rarefied, but if you look at anybody’s home there is art” of some kind.
Parker has been making headlines lately not for Sex and the City-related drama but rather for The Untitled Art Project, a Project Runway-style reality show that Parker’s production company, Pretty Matches, is creating for Bravo in collaboration with Magical Elves, the firm responsible for Project Runway and Top Chef.
ARTINFO spoke with Parker just as the show began its casting process. In the next few weeks, artists, clutching application forms downloaded from Bravo’s Web site, will gather at one of several casting calls around the country (at nonprofit space LAXART in Los Angeles on July 11 at 12; at Fred Snitzer Gallery in Miami on July 14; at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on July 16; and at alternative space White Columns in New York on July 18 and 19). They hope to be chosen as one of the show’s 13 finalists, who will compete on TV for a cash prize, a gallery show, and a sponsored national tour.
Parker declined to provide details about who precisely is involved in the casting, saying only that “a number of people” will “be part of the process.” She pointed to the “successful blueprint” that Bravo has used for shows like Top Chef and added that “we want to cast a wide net, for anyone who is interested regardless of age. My hope is, we will see and hear from many emerging and established artists.” Parker is especially keen that the casting remains entirely nondiscriminatory. “I don’t want to turn away anyone. It could be anyone between 17 and 107,” she says.
“The thing that is so interesting about an artistic career,” Parker continues, “is that so many people do it in obscurity. They can be successful in their community, but a larger community doesn’t know about them.” She wants, she says, “to help an artist get their work seen — really plain and simple.”
There is a personal motivation to Parker’s advocacy. “My husband [Matthew Broderick]’s mother was a great artist, a painter, and she is only now being discovered, since she passed away,” she says. “She spent her life in her work and was deeply entrenched in it, whether people were buying her work or not. It’s heartrending to watch: There are so many artists whose work is not being seen. How do we cultivate a new audience in this country, both within and outside of the art community?”
If Parker wants on the show both artists who are emerging in every sense of the word and some who already have a bit of currency in the art world, she may have a problem on her hands, namely the hesitance of some artists to buck every last precept of the avant-garde and appeal to mass culture through the potentially compromising medium of television. “Part of me was worried it would look too mercenary for certain artists,” she says. “They might find it objectionable to use TV to talk about what they do.” The show might, she says, end up being “more about people who feel comfortable with something risky,” by which she means the medium of TV itself. And yet, of course, the artwork created on the show can’t be too risky, as it needs to be presentable to a prime-time audience.
While it was nowhere near Bravo-scale, there is a recent precedent for an art-oriented reality show. A little over three years ago, 400 art world aspirants lined up outside SoHo gallery Deitch Projects in the freezing cold, hoping to be one of the eight lucky finalists on Art Star. The series, a collaboration between downtown gallerist Jeffery Deitch and the high-definition satellite network Voom, aired in June and July 2006. It may have lacked both Bravo’s glam factor and its viewership, but its format was compared, in the New York Times at least, to shows like Project Runway.
Art Star may not have had any established art world talents on its roster, but it did include a sort of art world wink/nudge: Among the mostly 20- and 30-something hopefuls in the final eight was the real-world (which is to say, art world) art star Dan Colens father, Sy Colen, a retired social worker from Brownsville, N.Y., who makes sculptures out of wood and clay. In contrast to Parker’s democratic approach to casting, Deitch has admitted that the artists for his show were chosen in part for having “a personality that would project.”
For all the comparisons with Project Runway, there’s a question of how art — which, unlike clothes and food, has no obvious practical function — will be judged on the new show. Parker doesn’t seem to think this is much of an issue, implying that the creations on Project Runway and Top Chef are judged more for their aesthetic than their functional qualities anyway. “Art,” she says, “will be judged in the same complicated way” as its culinary and sartorial counterparts, and viewers will have the same opportunity to comment via text message. “Viewers will have strong opinions,” she promises. “Anytime someone says, ‘I like that better than that,’ people have reactions: ‘That’s a hubcap! How can you say that’s better than this beautiful sculpture?’ ”
Does Parker think her show will raise eyebrows? “I don’t need it to be controversial,” she says, but “I want people to watch. I want people to talk about it.”