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New reality series has artists competing for their 15 minutes of fame

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Contestant Trong works on the assignment for the first episode, which airs Wednesday.

In a way, it's inevitable. Reality TV has already made just about every creative endeavor fashion design, hair styling, interior design, culinary arts, dance into public viewing fodder. Why not give visual artists their 15 minutes of fame?

Produced by Sarah Jessica Parker and her company Pretty Matches, "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" premieres Wednesday, June 9, on Bravo, the network that launched the hugely popular "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" series.

Fourteen emerging or mid-career artists were chosen from more than 1,000 who turned out for auditions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. (None of the contestants has Texas ties.) Each episode throws a different challenge to create new pieces of art, which are then exhibited and judged by a regular trio of experts: critic Jerry Saltz and two New York gallery owners, Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytan and Bill Powers. Actress China Chow is the host. And during the course of the series, art world luminaries drop in as surprise guest judges. (The only one announced so far is Andres Serrano, whose photograph of a crucifix in urine sparked national controversy when it was condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate.)

The big win for "Work of Art?" A cash prize of $100,000 and a solo exhibit at the respected Brooklyn Museum of Art.

But is the typically aloof and elitist art world ready for its own reality series, one that shamelessly traffics the idea of artist as celebrity?

It better be, says Saltz, now the senior art critic for New York Magazine and one of the more distinctive — and colorful — voices in art criticism.

"I can imagine people in the art world reacting (to the show) — policing its own borders, frightened to be popular and against the idea of competition," Saltz said recently by phone. He said he expects to hear a lot of flak from art world insiders for participating in the show. "But what's not competitive about the art world?"

And for that matter, today anybody can be an art critic.

Decades ago when art was the provenance of just a few — before blockbuster exhibits attracted hordes to museums and spawned a new popular audience for art — critical opinion was in the hands of just a few highly influential writers. But with the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of blogs and online indie journals and the receding primacy of traditional print media, the critical chatter is no longer left to just a few anointed voices.

"To me the hierarchy of the art world has already been blown to smithereens," Saltz says. "(Being on this show) is just doing what I do all day anyway — going to see art then trying to convince everyone that what I think about it is what they should think about it. I'm performing art criticism in the same way I would perform it (in writing)."

And go ahead, disagree with him.

"I want people to be able to look at an art critic and think 'he's wrong' because then they'll have to articulate for themselves why they disagree with me and then they'll be performing their own art criticism on their couch."

Others involved with "Work of Art" defend the idea that a reality competition series is a perfectly respectable and viable way for an emerging artist to gain recognition.

Just as the hierarchy of critical opinion has flattened, so has the hierarchy of opportunity, says noted art auctioneer and adviser Simon de Pury, who acts as mentor to the artists in the same way that Tim Gunn does on "Project Runway."

"In the old days when you wanted to make it in the art world you had to know just the right dealers and the right gallerists if you even wanted a chance at exposure," says de Pury. "Now there are so many ways for a young artist to get exposure."

Street art regularly catapults into the upper echelons of the art world: Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama "Hope" image transformed Fairey from an unknown illustrator into a celebrity artist. And again, with the Internet, notes de Puy, anybody can set up an online gallery or load performance art onto YouTube for all the world to see.

"Reality television is no different," says de Puy. "It's a way for any artist to get exposure."

"Work of Art" is technically not the first reality competition show to feature visual artists. In 2005, high profile gallery owner and art world impresario Jeffrey Deitch organized "Artstar," for Gallery HD, a now-defunct arts-themed high-definition channel. The eight-episode show had contestants create artworks for a group exhibition at Deitch's now-defunct Soho gallery. But few ever saw "Artstar." (Interestingly "Work of Art" judge Rohaytan was an adviser for Deitch before opening her own Upper East Side gallery.)

And really — are celebrity and artistic success so far apart?

"It's interesting to see that those artists over the last century or so who have done best in market terms — Picasso, Warhol and more recently someone like Jeff Koons — have all had a high media presence and the kind personality that lend themselves to that," says de Pury.

Coincidence? Probably not.

'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist'

9 p.m. Wednesdays

Bravo