I don’t think anybody had MTV and Hirshhorn Museum’s reality TV collaboration on their 2023 prediction bingo cards, but here we are. The first episode premiered Friday night, and it is rife with awkward silences, clumsy characterizations of art world players, and misused soundboard effects. MTV and the Smithsonian Channel’s The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist recycles cliché reality TV tropes but fails to commit to the over-performativity that makes the genre iconic.
As the program’s host, MTV News’s Dometi Pongo introduces the show’s premise: Six artists put their skills and concepts to the test while competing for a “career-defining exhibit” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, and a $100,000 prize. Following the same format as Project Runway or any Food Network competition show, the contestants have limited time to develop and display a piece of artwork that responds to a broad prompt assigned by lead judge and Hirshhorn Museum Director Melissa Chiu. The saccharine twist is that all six artists stay through the show’s duration rather than getting picked off one by one, immediately melting away some of the competitive tension but ostensibly making room for “character development” throughout the series.
The seven contestants are Frank Buffalo Hyde, who came to win with his paintings of contemporary Indigenous life; 2D artist and educator Jamaal Barber, who is just happy to be here; interdisciplinary and outside-of-the-box artist Jillian Mayer; internationally established and quirky 3D designer Misha Kahn; bold and brazen mixed-media artist Baseera Khan; down-to-earth painter and high school teacher Clare Kambhu (who barely mentions her Yale MFA); and self-taught oil painter Jennifer Warren, who compares herself to other participants with an extensive art education and commercial success.
The contestants assign each other reality TV archetypes in their private cutaway interviews but fail to maintain that energy in their remarkably awkward interactions. The best example of this is when Kambhu tries to start a conversation about how Barbara Kruger taught her how to think and be critical, only to be met with a stiff “interesting … yeah,” from Warren as they struggle to maintain eye contact with each other while Hyde stands politely beside them, saying nothing.
Following a “night at the museum” experience supplemented with unintentionally hilarious shots of the individual contestants gazing at various artworks on the Hirshhorn’s four floors, Chiu and Pongo announced that the first “commission” should respond to the fact that only 15 of 195 countries in the world acknowledge more than two genders in official documentation. (Cue Tucker Carlson foaming at the mouth.)
The artists already had six weeks to prepare and ideate on this challenge, so they jumped right into the development process which made up the majority of the episode. The high point for me was watching Kahn design and breathe life into a giant inflatable resin banana sculpture, exasperatedly wrestling with it as if it was the combative drunk friend you’re desperately trying to finagle into the Uber at the end of a night out. Mayer, Khan, and Khambu’s commissions engage in ambitiously experimental dialogue between material and concept, while Barber, Warren, and Hyde lean into their existing traditional skillsets to get the job done.
It’s really funny to hear art theory jargon underscored by quintessential reality TV soundboard effects. The show was obviously written to invite viewers who aren’t really art-aligned, as demonstrated by Chiu’s positioning of Yayoi Kusama’s work as the entry point for contemporary art appreciation.
I enjoyed being able to see the artists’ creative processes but it definitely cut into the critique time that was reduced to one-line responses from Chiu and guest judges Adam Pendleton and Artnet News columnist Kenny Schachter. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll say that the winner of the first competition was especially contrived and polarizing as their representational, binary-adhering 2D work with a weak composition was described as an “inventive way of talking about gender” while it was displayed next to a drippy hormonal fog machine, a hulking mass of inflatable banana, and a mixed media tapestry made from archival passport images.
I think I’ll see the show through to the end out of genuine interest in the artwork produced since the meek cast dynamics aren’t matching up to what you’d see on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But credit where it’s due, the vicious confessional interviews compared to the reserved in-person behavior does match up with the reality of art world drama.