Knowledgeable host makes art show fun
by Frank Provenzano
Host Robert Maniscalco sits on the steps outside an ivy-covered brick house in Grosse Pointe, whetting viewers’ curiosity with a tone that is equal parts serious-minded investigative journalist and sill showman.
He claims that inside the house lives artist Jim Pallas, a genius of “found object sculpture who eats conceptualism for breakfast.”
The dare for viewers: Come along on Maniscalco’s jaunty tour, where the world of art and artists is deconstructed and typical elitist notion about “ahhtt” are cast aside.
It’s a rather safe dare, and one that skims past the bigger challenge facing the WTVS-TV (Channel 56) show “Art Beat.” That is: Can Maniscalco get beyond niceties to probe the gritty subject of how artists grind out contemporary art in Detroit?
The weekly show premieres Saturday on Detroit’s public television affiliate.
The station is committed to airing 18 episodes this season. That should be enough shows to figure if there’s an audience interested in learning about the personalities, work habits and art created by local painters and sculptors and installation and mixed media artists.
“It’s important for us to produce local programming, and create a buzz in the arts community,” says Jeff Forster, vice president of production at WTVS. “We’re targeting people who might not know much about art, and will enjoy the unpretentious, conversational tone the Robert Brings.”
Robert Maniscalco – a portrait artist, gallery owner and tireless arts advocate – knows that if television is the medium, then entertainment is the expectation, even on public television.
And he’s up to the task.
He not only hosts and helps select the featured artists, Maniscalco is the only underwriter of “Art Beat.” His donation is “well below 10 percent of the production expenses,” says Forster. He wouldn’t disclose the cost of the show.
“I hope to light a fire, and emphasize the ‘star’ in starving artist,” says Maniscalco, a former professional actor who trained at New York’s Circle in the Square.
Saturday’s “Art Beat” debut features sculptor Pallas, a Macomb Community College art instructor and unabashed 1960s hippie who turns broken CDs and vinyl, coupons, doll legs and crumbled beer cans into representations of fish. He also creates interactive sculptures that respond to light and sound.
Ever the showman, Maniscalco barks at one interactive sculpture, jokingly prods Pallas to explain his path to becoming an artist, and playfully pretends that his hand has been melted as Pallas wields a torch to demonstrate how he welds a wire-scuplture fish.
It’s not quite like listening to a distinguished art scholar lecture on the importance of contemporary art, but he show could provide a vital service to an arts community that’s viewed as fragmented and lacking recognition, says “Art Beat” director Todd Hastings.
“We are promoting these artists and want viewers to go out to galleries to see their work,” says Hastings. He directed “Back Stage Pass,” the highly regarded show on WTVS that showcased the region’s performing artists and cultural events. The show was canceled two years ago when sponsors pulled funding.
Unlike “Back Stage Pass,” which featured an array of artists, exhibits, concerts and plays, “Art Beat” focuses only on the visual arts. The first four shows set out on familiar ground; there are profiles of Tyree Guyton and Gilda Snowden, who are among the most well-known local artists.
“Detroit’s art community is thriving, and there’s a misperception that these artists are inaccessible,” says Hastings. “Many of them are blue collar craftsman, and we want to show that.
“Of course, our challenge is to choose people who are articulate and who make good TV.”
But for “Art Beat” to become a bona-fide spotlight, it must become more that a 30-minute advertisement for art.
It should ponder the meaning of art that defies convention and how it makes a statement about life.
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