An in-depth look at the legacy of Jeffrey Deitch's reviled, unprecedented art-TV experiment, 'Artstar.'
Considered the first unscripted contemporary art show, Artstar made its debut on June 1, 2006. It only lasted one season. A contestant-driven premise without clear winners or losers, Artstar failed to gather the requisite dramatic momentum to keep a series going. Critics panned it for its lack of reality TV-signature sound bites. Compared to then-contemporary programs like The Biggest Loser and unforgettably sensational Fear Factor, Artstar’s pithy day-to-day asides felt positively dry. But, the show wasn’t trying to emulate Survivor or Project Runway—its model was closer to the Orwellian pop mutant, Real World. Reflecting on the short-lived series a full decade later, one wonders if its failure was one of timing, rather than of concept.
Today, almost all reality television follows the Real World and Artstar formulas. The unavoidable Keeping Up with the Kardashians has prompted an entire universe of commerce that extends far beyond the half-hour timeslot. The nationwide network of Real Housewives can no doubt attest to the power of just letting the cameras just roll. This 24-hour, 360-degree approach was at the heart of Artstar, a collaborative project between 90s internet mogul Josh Harris and gallerist Jeffrey Deitch.
Spun out of an unlikely, albeit unsurprising, friendship between the two influencers, Artstar was developed after Harris approached Deitch about putting his gallery, Deitch Projects, under surveillance. “Josh used to really enjoy coming to my gallery, and every time he would come he would say, ‘When are we going to do the Deitch Network?’” says Deitch. “His idea was that we just wire up the gallery with microphones and cameras. We would be on camera 24 hours a day, so everything we did from an exciting opening to a business deal [would be captured]. I took this very seriously and he brought on two business guys that did, too.” As they plotted, Harris and his company, Pseudo.com, crashed following his own adventures in complete surveillance. Despite Harris’ public failure, the finance guys were still sold on the idea of a Deitch show and approached Rainbow Media Holdings on the gallerist’s behalf. One million dollars was invested in the eight-episode series that became Artstar.
To find willing contestants, Artstar held an open call, which acted as the pilot episode á la American Idol. Shot on a chilly day in February, the brutal weather did not deter the hopefuls from showing up in force. Hundreds wrapped around the block with portfolios and PowerPoints in tow. Deitch and his team culled eight from the bunch. The final cast was reasonably diverse and undeniably talented, as history has proved. Contestant Abigail DeVille is the youngest sculptor included in Hauser, Wirth, & Schimmel’s monumental Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016 exhibition. Transgender performance artist Zackary Drucker is an associate producer on Amazon’s celebrated Transparent series, and has exhibited at institutions like MoMA PS1 and the Hammer Museum. Respected and influential luminaries from the art world, like Jeff Koons, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Roselee Goldberg, also made appearances on Artstar as judges and mentors. It was in many ways an industry-wide affair.
Every week, contestants faced new challenges, but the penultimate moment was an art parade they held in SoHo. Without eliminations, these assignments felt arbitrary, and from their into-camera confessionals, the contestants seem to agree. A compromise between Deitch and the executives, Artstar tried to focus on how an artist develops inside and outside the studio, rather than perpetuate the myth of the once-in-a-lifetime chance. While this didn’t engage a time-based audience, one cannot help but wonder what kind of legs these videos would have had online. As it is, it’s hard enough trying to track them down.
Deitch himself feels unequivocally that Artstar was ahead of its time. When he went to MOCA in Los Angeles, the curator kept the idea alive through his launch of MOCAtv, a YouTube channel. “There are people who want to understand how the art world works, they want to know how an artist develops their talent, how they reach their public,” Deitch says. “The whole world has access through the internet, you can reach the people in Singapore and Belgium—you don’t just have to entertain 100 million Americans anymore. The structure now permits you to be more rigorous.”
While Deitch might be right about the potential, reality TV has yet to catch up. Artstar’s successor, Bravo’s Work of Art, first aired in 2010, and only lasted two iterations. Work of Art followed the rubric Bravo helped perfect with a well-appointed cast, including camera-ready influencers like Jerry Saltz, Bill Powers, and China Chow. Their next attempt was Gallery Girls, which began and ended in 2012. A ditzy take on back-of-house gallery drama, the show further alienated TV from the art world. The cherry on top was last year’s debut Art Breaker$, an Ovation show that can be best described as art advisory seen through the lens of The Simple Life.
Television may never crack the art world, but looking at an increasingly video-driven web landscape, one cannot help but think Harris and Deitch were onto something. As always, a good idea at the wrong time can be bad—but watching clips from the almost forgotten show, I found myself wishing for the heartfelt Artstar reunion.
Keep up with Jeffrey Deitch's current projects on his website.