A little while ago, a study showed that the strongest signal for “making it” as an artist today isn’t talent or a master of fine arts degree or group shows. What matters most, according to the research, is endorsement: 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 apparently few other ladders to climb.
That explains MTV and the Smithsonian Channel’s newest reality offering, “The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist,” a show that transforms endorsement into the ultimate prize. Across six episodes, seven rising artists compete for $100,000 and an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Contenders range from rising stars (Baseera Khan, who’s 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 L.A. flagship in 2021) to the established but overlooked (Frank Buffalo Hyde, whose work is held by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe).
In a familiar formula, the artists have several hours to make one “commission” in response to a given theme — gender, social media— and their work is critiqued by a rotating panel of judges, including the artist Adam Pendleton and writer Kenny Schachter. After six weeks, one artist will vault to a level of visibility that typically only megagalleries provide. For artists who can’t depend on traditional platforms always working in their favor, the show offers a recourse to a prejudicial gallery system and an opportunity for them to expand their audience.
Still, these gladiator games in the cultural arena are a tacit validation of the destructive 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 isn’t the first show cast 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 tidy parallel between internecine art-world drama and familiar conceits of reality TV. The show also offered a $100,000 cash prize as well as a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where one trustee resigned in protest, citing the museum’s perception as “a party place and a center of celebrity.” The critic Jerry Saltz penned an apologia for his role as a judge on the first season, describing it as “bad for art.” (He subsequently returned for the next season.)
After winning the second and final season, Kymia Nawabi told Hyperallergic: “Unfortunately, the show has not really impacted my career in very obvious ways (yet). I thought there would be some galleries interested in my work: nope. I thought I was going to make a ton of new sales: nope.” Despite decent ratings, “Work of Art” was canceled and succeeded by the even more short-lived “Gallery Girls,” which followed several upstarts in New York City’s glamorous gallery scene and ended, tellingly, when one cast member chose a job at a luxury concierge over an internship at a prestigious art advisory.
“The Exhibit” wisely holds its institutional affiliation at a calculated distance. Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn director and the show’s chief judge, opens the competition by describing the contemporary art museum as “the wild child” of the Smithsonian. Hosted by MTV’s Dometi Pongo, it’s certainly a bolder and more irreverent show than its sumptuous closeups of wet paint and dim galleries might have you believe, more aligned with the museum’s high-profile initiatives with such contemporary artists asBarbara Kruger and Nicolas Party. Following in the wake of less cutthroat craft tournaments like “The Great Pottery Throw Down” and “Blown Away,” the show seeks to cultivate a congenial vibe, foregoing weekly eliminations. In its earnest embrace of sportsmanship, “The Exhibit” wants to renegotiate a parasocial relationship to reality TV and inject some much-needed levity into the rarefied and often forbidding province of High Art.
Yet, within 10 minutes factions and villains emerge as predictable tropes. Pedigreed artists lapse into MFA jargon as they trash talk the self-taught painters, who find camaraderie and motivation in being ostracized from the mainstream; sculptors and mixed-media artists are pitted against the painters and draftspeople in a gentle parody of centuries-long academic debates. The Indigenous painter Frank Buffalo Hyde, for example, criticizes the attention given to young, institutionally validated artists over those who’ve long “done the work” — a fair critique, though one whose cursory treatment here typecasts the artist and sets up an ageist conflict.
Rivalry can be generative. It can sustain creativity over long careers and push the bounds of artistic experimentation. But this sense of competition is frustratingly at odds with an issue-of-the-week format that expects artists to fashion topical (and legible) work on demand.
Contestants are judged for their originality, quality of execution and strength of concept — a set of criteria so universal that it’s essentially valueless. In the first crit, featuring works about gender, Misha Kahn is dinged for an overly ambitious resin sculpture of a banana (“a novelty toy,” says Schachter). Visibly unimpressed, Pendleton dismisses Jamaal Barber’s vaguely Cubist charcoal portrait of a two-gendered sitter as “redundant,” and knocks Jillian Mayer’s olfactory work that off-gasses hormones for failing to “activate the space.” Not only is this familiar criticism, but it also offers no sense of vision and trajectory to its subjects. If “The Exhibit’s” own judges don’t even buy the show’s promise that the museum can play kingmaker for a new class of artists, why should we?
Each competitor could have been granted $100,000 for less than the production budget, and the show’s cash prize doesn’t even match “Work of Art’s” accounting for inflation. Baseera Khan, “The Exhibit’s” most established artist, already had a well-received solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. What do they stand to gain? The prize exhibition is only a single work: the winner’s sixth commission for the season finale. While that’s hardly the “exhibit of a lifetime” promised in the trailer, the shrine to the spectacle is sure to be, in Pongo’s words, “career defining.”
‘The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist’
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)