Up Close and Personal: A Q&A with Susan Sollins of <em>Art:21</em> (New York, NY)

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  Staircase sculpture with lots of objects on each step

Scala Naturae, 1994, by Mark Dion, one of the artists featured on the television series Art: 21—Art in the Twenty-First Century. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

Broadcast on PBS since 2001, Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century features intimate profiles of contemporary visual artists. To date, more than 7,399 broadcasts on 459 PBS stations have featured artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Maya Lin, Martin Puryear, and William Wegman. Art:21 Executive Producer Susan Sollins recently spoke with the NEA via e-mail about the program’s genesis, outreach mission, and future plans.

NEA: How did Art:21 come about? What’s the program’s mission?

SUSAN SOLLINS: Art21 came about as the result of an invitation I received in 1995 from WNET/Thirteen, the New York public television station. . . . When WNET called, it was to ask me to assist them with the development of programming in the visual arts, an arena which was less known to its staff than the performing arts. Once I started to learn about the reach of broadcast television, I began to develop Art21 (the non-profit organization) and the PBS series Art:21 – Art  in the Twenty-First Century. From the beginning, Art21--the organization--was conceived with a 21st-century mission in mind. Formed to bring contemporary art, and artists as creative role models, to the largest possible audience via a media-based presence (television, web, and print), Art21 had begun by 1997 to create its television series, educational programs, and teaching materials, as well as to develop the concept of an Art21 website.

NEA: Why focus only on contemporary artists?

SOLLINS: We can’t meet or talk with artists of the past, but we can do so with artists who are alive today. What an extraordinary resource and what an exciting adventure it is to be able to learn directly from an artist about his or her own work! When we study the history of European art, we read Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. But even Vasari did not know many of the artists about whom he wrote, nor could he observe their studio practices. Because Art:21 works with living artists, actually observing them at work, we learn through all the nuances of that experience without the filter of mediating interpretation. This provides an unprecedented privilege and opportunity not only to teach, not only to create an invaluable film archive, but also to inspire young people to new ways of thinking and being in the world. From its inception, Art:21–Art in the Twenty-First Century has mirrored the diversity of our country. As a result the series has actually been quite international, including artists such as Shahzia Sikander, Gabriel Orozco, and Krzystof Wodizcko. At the beginning of the entire project, we made a decision that each artist selected would have a strong foothold in this country, and this decision provided us with some curatorial and financial limits. Filming throughout the world, after all, would have been prohibitively expensive and far beyond the means of a young non-profit organization like Art21. Now, as we enter our fifth broadcast season, we try whenever possible to travel beyond our borders to show that we live in a truly international world where the flow of ideas is as noteworthy in art as in international politics.

NEA: What’s your job as executive producer?

SOLLINS: My role as executive producer is somewhat non-traditional:  I also serve as the Executive Director of [the organization] Art21, with responsibilities for its overall well-being and stability. Initially, as executive producer, I worked with my colleague Susan Dowling to create the form of the series. Since then, I have served as the primary curator, selecting the artists--with the assistance of Art:21’s Associate Curator, Wesley Miller--and determining the overarching themes for each program hour. In my role as producer/director, I work closely with Eve Moros Ortega, Art:21’s series producer, whose organizational skills and supervision make possible our complex filming schedule. Finally, I supervise our small film crews “on location” and interview each artist during the film-shoot. Once the edit phase begins, I read and mark transcripts, screen and make “selects” from our filmed footage, and work directly with our consulting directors and editors. The overlap between the roles of executive director and executive producer is a constant, for we must continue to raise funds to support the entire Art:21 organization as well as the actual filming and editing of the broadcast series.

NEA; How do you select the artists to be featured? Are there considerations other than theme when putting together the “cast” for each episode. 

SOLLINS: Putting together the “cast” for each program hour is indeed complex. The series is broadcast nationally in prime-time: it is seen then throughout the country, and continues afterward to be viewed in educational institutions, repeat PBS broadcasts, and throughout the world via international distribution. For this reason, we believe that the artists we showcase should represent many ways of working and thinking, and many diverse backgrounds. It is also vitally important that, without a preamble or lecture, we make it clear that extraordinary art and artists live throughout our country, not just in major centers.

NEA: How do artists respond when you tell them they’re going to be featured?

SOLLINS: They seem to be genuinely pleased, especially when they understand that our programs are being used heavily and on many levels in schools throughout our country.

NEA: How many stations carry the program and how else are episodes available other than on-air?

SOLLINS: There have been more than 7,399 broadcasts to date on 459 PBS stations. Full Art:21 episodes are available through PBS home video in the United States. This summer, full episodes will become available online on www.pbs.org , iTunes, and Hulu.  Art:21 is distributed internationally in more than 50 countries. Art:21’s website is consistently one of the “Top Ten” most popular PBS web pages with site traffic averaging 1.8 million hits by 200,000 unique visitors each month.

NEA: What do you hope viewers learn from Art:21?

SOLLINS: I trust that the take-away is an enthusiasm and interest in today’s [visual] artists, and that Art:21’s public understands through the series that artists work extremely hard, that their ideas are substantial, and that new art often needs new forms to contain it. Our artists not only reflect our society, but also tell us a great deal about our identity and the issues that are in the vanguard of our political, cultural, and social discourse. And they provide us with role models for creative thinking in many areas of our collective life as a nation.

NEA: What types of outreach activities are part of Art:21?

SOLLINS: Events include screening and discussion programs for adults and young people, artist talks, and professional development workshops for teachers. We have developed an extraordinarily large network of organizational partners across the country--including museums, community galleries, youth organizations, libraries, school districts, and PBS stations--with which we collaborate in order to reach local audiences more directly. Over the last few months we have collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art to present a workshop on teaching with contemporary art; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to host a monthly screening series; and the New York City Public Library to present a series of artist talks. This summer we will announce our fifth season of the broadcast with our biannual preview initiative: Art:21 Access '09--an international celebration of contemporary art and creativity. Last season we worked with Americans for the Arts and more than 350 local venues during National Arts and Humanities Month (October 2007) to present 400 screening events in all 50 states and 20 countries internationally.

NEA: How important is NEA funding to Art:21?

SOLLINS: NEA has played a crucial role in Art:21’s existence and growth. At the earliest stages of development, the NEA provided the seed money that was necessary to kick-start the organization. Since that time, Art:21 has received crucial funding from the Arts on Radio and Television program for the production of the series, and from the Access to Artistic Excellence program for our education and outreach activities. Without this funding from the NEA, or the endorsement that funding implies, Art:21 would simply not exist.

NEA: How do you see the program changing/expanding in coming years?

SOLLINS: As a 21st century media-based organization, we are interested in evolving whatever we do with the latest innovations in technology. But beyond that, as documentary storytellers, our adoption and exploration of new forms and styles is very much about a connection to the here-and-now and to our innovative subjects--the artists themselves. In terms of television, we are adopting hi-def standards that will enable viewers to see works of art on screen in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. The internet is very much a part of our society--an entire generation has grown up online. Art:21 is naturally growing in this arena as well, presenting the entire television series online, creating new web-original video content, and experimenting with new genres of content and online communities, from blogs to YouTube to podcasts to Facebook and Flickr.

To complement this we are also applying new technologies to the ways in which we can work more directly with teachers. With a national audience of educators, we have been developing tools and programs to engage with teachers beyond their attendance at a workshop or downloading a resource. We are about to embark on the pilot year of an educational initiative that will allow us to work with teachers in multiple cities over the course of an entire year as well as to document and share their work in the classroom using distance-learning formats such as webinars and online social networking software.