While reality series on Bravo have focused on everyone from chefs ("Top Chef"), celebrity stylists ("The Rachel Zoe Project"), house flippers ("Flipping Out"), photographers (the new "Double Exposure") and, of course, Housewives, the new competition show "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" ventures into the world of art. In this series, co-produced by reality show gurus Magical Elves, actress/producer Sarah Jessica Parker and Eli Holzman, fourteen artists come together to compete for the chance to win a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum and a substantial cash prize.
Magical Elves Executive Producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, who are also behind "Top Chef," "Top Chef Masters," "Kell On Earth," and the new "Real L Word" on Showtime, took time out from their hectic schedules to chat with our Jim Halterman about how they came to work with a certain "Sex And The City" gal, the tell-tale signs of who belongs on their shows and who doesn't and whether we'll see some of the infamous reality show personality clashes in "Work of Art."
Jim Halterman: Can you tell me about the genesis of the project and how you got involved with Sarah Jessica Parker?
Dan Cutforth: It actually was something we were developing with an old colleague of ours, Eli Holzman, and we were talking about the possibilities of doing a competitive show in the art world and how cool that could be. We developed it and we were actually out pitching it when we heard from Bravo that Sarah Jessica and her company, Pretty Matches, was also interested in that area and they had developed a show as well that they had been pitching. We were kind of brought together and we started talking about our ideas and we felt like it would be a great fit. We had worked with Sarah Jessica before when she was a guest judge on 'Project Runway.' That's how it all came together.
JH: With Magical Elves having such a long track record with reality shows, do you two always know when you're onto something before you even begin shooting?
Jane Lipsitz: We start to have a good feeling while we're shooting. That's when the cast comes alive and we always pay attention to how our crew feels because if they are engaged then that's always a good sign.
DC: But sometimes it just doesn't translate well when you edit it so that is a process you have to go through to try to get it there. Then you put it out there and we've had a number of shows that have tested really well but the audience just hasn't embraced. We may be really happy with it and we've loved the episodes and then you put them out there and the audience doesn't care. So you can't really tell that part until it happens.
JH: It sounds like the judge's job will be tough since art can be such a subjective thing. Can you explain how that is going to work?
DC: The subjectivity of art was something that we talked about a lot both in development and then when we were actually making the show. What's kind of interesting is when you watch the show there weren't many occasions where the judges would say something and we would be there scratching our heads and saying 'Why would they like that? I can't understand it!' Even if they like something that you don't initially like once they talked about what they liked about it then you begin to see why they appreciated it even if you didn't. Someone said to us that there is a famous quote that is attributed to Andy Warhol and sometimes to Marshall McLuhan that art is whatever you can get away with. There's a lot of stuff that people don't get away with on this show and get called out for. When people failed on the show - and I think failing should be in quotes - they've tried something that just doesn't work and you can see that it doesn't work.
JH: What were the criteria for picking a host and the three judges?
DC: I think it varies. For the host, we tried to find someone who, to a certain degree, can be the voice of the audience so someone who is not such an insider that they don't feel relatable but they have enough knowledge of that world that they know what they're talking about. That's why China Chow was amazing. She's grown up surrounded by the art world. Her father is the famous restaurateur Michael Chow [aka Mr. Chow], who befriended many artists in the 80s and has had his portrait done by every leading artist of the late 20th Century. Then, in terms of the judges, what we really tried to find were people that would go against the popular view that art is elitist or not for the masses in some sort of way. The people who were very good about expressing their point of view about art and when we looked at them on tape talking about pieces of art we understood more about the art from hearing them talk.
JL: We want people to feel like art is universal and people who don't know about art can watch the show, embrace it and learn about it and not feel intimidated by it and know their opinion matters.
JH: Can you talk about casting and what makes an ideal contestant for 'Work of Art?'
DC: I think in casting any show like this you're looking for people who combine great talent and intriguing personalities. In this particular case, we sent Simon de Pury, who is the mentor on the show, across the country and every city that he went to - LA, Chicago, NY and Miami - we gathered a group of art heavyweights and then opened it up for anyone who wanted to show their work. We wanted to get a cross section of people. We had people who were very established in the art world and, for example, in the case of Eric he had never shown his art to anyone and never considered himself to be an artist. He was just someone who liked to paint. We didn't say to anyone that these were the people that we want. We let them respond to the talent and then we found our cast from that short list.
JH: In general, have you found that the contestants who try out for your shows are much more TV savvy now than they were in the past?
JL: Definitely! The good thing is that we're lucky because most of the shows that we do are very specific for the kind of talent we need. A lot of the people might have ten shows on their application that they've tried out for and we keep an eye out for that. If someone has tried to get on a lot of reality shows we tend to stay away from them because they obviously want to be on the show but we'd prefer people who are truly trying to fulfill the passion that we're showcasing.
DC: I will say that shows like 'Top Chef,' being as established as it is, and even 'Work of Art,' when people come in to talk to us there are people who say 'I have a great personality and I'd be great on TV' but it's amazing how many people really just want the opportunity. When you ask them, 'How do you feel about being on a competition on TV and having cameras following you around?' they will very often say 'Well, I have some questions about that' or 'I hadn't thought what that would be like.' Very often those people are there for the opportunity.
JL: Even on 'Top Chef' after six or seven seasons we have people saying they haven't seen the show yet so that just reinforces the fact that they are there for the opportunity and not for the television exposure.
JH: So far on 'Work of Art,' everyone seems to be getting along but will we see some personalities clashing down the line?
DC: There are definitely some personality clashes on the show. What's interesting about artists is that their work is very personal to them and they care passionately about it. Also, they're not used to working in close proximity to each other. It tends to be a solitary lifestyle like writing and I think the pressure of the competition and being in such close proximity definitely creates some interesting tension and there's definitely quite a bit of conflict as the season develops.
"Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" airs every Wednesday at 10:00/9:00c on Bravo.