Great artists through the ages have been identified by kings, popes, wealthy collectors, museum curators, scholars, gallery owners and great seats of learning. And now, by MTV.
“The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist” is a new reality show from MTV and the Smithsonian Channel in which seven rising artists compete for a $100,000 prize, as well as a solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian’s national museum of contemporary art in Washington, D.C.
With a premiere Friday in a prized time slot—at 9 p.m. ET, following one of the network’s highest-rated shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—the art-based reality competition is not only something new for MTV but also something new for the more traditional Smithsonian.
Still, the show’s producer says, “it was a brainchild of the team at Smithsonian Channel,” where it will air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET.
“The Smithsonian/Hirshhorn team knows art, so we collaborated shoulder to shoulder,” says the Emmy award-winning Patty Ivins Specht of PB&J TV + Docs, who produced the show in partnership with Smithsonian Channel and MTV Entertainment Studios. “They were very involved. We were very strategic about finding people whose work was at the level of a highly respected contemporary art world.”
Museum director Melissa Chiu didn’t just help cull from the hundreds of artists who applied to compete—she serves as the show’s lead judge.
“‘The Exhibit’ … exemplifies the Hirshhorn’s radical accessibility to modern and contemporary art,” Chiu said in a statement announcing the show. “This series will introduce audiences, wherever they are, to art making, spotlighting the importance of artists in society and energizing the Hirshhorn’s art-for-all mission.”
Chiu’s enthusiastic involvement is what drew so many artists to apply for the show, Specht says. “It made it enticing to artists who probably wouldn’t participate, because they had this time to have all this face time with her, and to have their work amplified. Imagine, getting six prime-time hours of television on a couple networks, to amplify your practice? Artists would be crazy not to want to participate with that possibility.”
Chiu appears in each of the six episodes alongside host Dometi Pongo of MTV News. The museum director heads a revolving panel of guest judges that include artists Adam Pendleton and Abigail DeVille, Hirshhorn trustee, collector and former football linebacker Keith Rivers, critic Kenny Schachter, sociologist Sarah Thornton, digital museum strategist JiaJia Fei and Samuel Hoi, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where much of the show’s action was filmed in March 2022.
There, artists were asked to respond to a different theme or topic in each episode and given a time limit to complete their vision. The media used are as diverse as the artists.
And while this might sound like any number of existing reality competitions for bakers, chefs, fashion designers, tattoo artists, florists or glass blowers, the key difference this time is that all seven of the artists stick around. While one is highlighted each week for best completing the task, and there’s one big winner at the finale, none is ever eliminated along the way.
“In my mind, you can’t judge an artist on one piece of art,” Specht says. “You want to judge them on a series of works. What I think is so special about this as a format is we get to see these artists and how their minds work, and how they respond to a prompt in different ways. And in the end, you see this rich body of work, and you get a better idea of who they are and what they think about the world.”
Specht says the show fits the “ethos of the Smithsonian” because it helps bring art to a wider audience. The Hirshhorn website calls it the “next step in our art-for-all mission.” As a result, she says, “There is a spirit between these artists of camaraderie and supporting one another, and being interested in each other’s work, and it’s a much more nuanced and positive peek inside the art world.”
Previous reality competition shows have featured artists—notably “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which ran for two seasons on Bravo from 2010 to 2011. Prize money on that show was the same—$100,000—but the solo show on offer was at the Brooklyn Museum, something that one competitor on “The Exhibit,” the performance artist and sculptor Baseera Khan, already accomplished there in 2021.
“All those shows have nothing to do with real artists working in the city,” Khan says of earlier reality art competitions. “This particular TV show really did work hard to assemble a group of people who were really artists. Now, are all of them dusty, museum-style artists like myself? No. But they all are a part of the fiber of what it means to be an artist.”
Khan, who initially got involved to learn how to better produce a TV project (“By Faith,” which premiered at the Moody Center for the Arts in Houston last year), said “The Exhibit” bypassed that usual reality television killer instinct.
“There’s no competition here. There’s more of a dialogue. So that’s what it ended up being. We all made what we made,” Khan said. “We just all had some fun.”
Another participant, New York sculptor and designer Misha Kahn had a little difficulty with the time constraints but added, “The upside was I really loved the other artists. I didn’t necessary expect that. I haven’t done a residency in a really long time and it was fun to be in a group making environment.”
The other artists featured are printmaker Jamaal Barber of Atlanta; Onondaga/Niimíipuu (New Perce) painter Frank Buffalo Hyde of Northfield, Minnesota; Clare Kambhu, an art teacher in New York; self-taught painter Jennifer Warren of Chicago; and sculptor Jillian Mayer of Miami.
In the premiere episode, the seven meet one another and are treated to a night in the Hirshhorn's galleries, complete with a tour of its storage vaults. As the artists wander among works by such artists as Mark Bradford, Laurie Anderson and Barbara Kruger, the audience, too, is made privy to an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the rarely seen spaces of a public museum. The artists are next tasked with their first assignment at their workshop in Baltimore: responding to gender issues. Another episode has the artists responding to the rise of social media.
The show was conceived and executed for the Smithsonian Channel, but it was the corporate chiefs at Paramount and Viacom who determined it was deserving of a wider audience.
“I think it was a real validation of our work that they decided to pair it with ‘RuPaul’ and to launch it on MTV,” Specht says.
For some of the artists, the high-profile time slot was an intimidating surprise. “I don’t live my life thinking anything I do is going to be a big deal,” Khan says. “I didn’t realize that MTV would be screening it right after ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, people are actually going to see this?’ And then I tried to get out of it. And obviously I couldn’t.”
Participant Misha Kahn said, there’s no avoiding the phenomenon. “I think reality TV has already infiltrated everyone’s studio practice, whether we like to think so or not,” he says. “I’ll be working on a piece and think of RuPaul saying, ‘Make sure you’re bringing yourself to each challenge’ or something. So to actually do one seemed like acknowledging this in a funny way.”
For audiences, it might demystify the art process, Kahn says. “I think there’s this idea that art isn’t comprehensible or it’s really pretentious and while it can be at times, this show really breaks down that barrier nicely and makes it clear that art is for everyone.”
Ultimately, he adds, “I hope some little kid in a small town who loves to make unusual things sees it and learns there’s a great big world out there for them.”
“The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist” premieres Friday, March 3, at 9 p.m. ET on MTV, and on the Smithsonian Channel, Tuesday, March 7 at 9 p.m.