Art on the airwaves

Art on the airwaves: a bevy of art-based TV shows are opening viewers’ eyes to the artists in their communities

Art Business News, March, 2004 by Jessica Lyons

A few years ago, Jeff Douglas suggested a weekly television series to Oregon Public Broadcasting. The show would profile local artists and suggest upcoming events. Douglas didn’t own a gallery, and he wasn’t a painter or a sculptor. He simply thought he had a good idea that would make for good TV viewing.

Public broadcasting executives agreed. “You produce it,” they told Douglas.

And so “Oregon Art Beat” went on the air on the PBS affiliate in 1999. It’s been showcasing local artists ever since.

“When I started, I didn’t have any formal training in the arts at all,” said Douglas, executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning series. “So I chose stories that interested me. If it interested me, chances are it would interest other people who aren’t art aficionados. I didn’t want to make a show that would cater to an arts audience, I wanted to make a show people would watch.

“One of the premises of the show is that we try to give the viewer something that they would not be able to easily experience on their own. We wouldn’t cover art on the wall because a viewer could go look at art on the wall in a gallery. We’re in the studio with the artists, watching them create, listening to them talk about how they create. It’s a behind-the-scenes look.”

So far, his formula is working. “Oregon Art Beat” pulls in about 70,000 viewers, according to Douglas. “We’re not beating ‘Survivor,’ but it’s a respectable showing on PBS.”

The show isn’t strictly about visual artists. It highlights local talent from high-end painters to an operatic baritone to a bit-and-spur craftsman. But slowly, Douglas said, local gallery owners are catching on.

“They notice that when one of their artists is on our show, their gallery traffic dramatically increases,” he said. “It’s not unusual for gallery foot-traffic to double or triple.”

And it’s not just Oregon. From New Jersey to California to Alaska and all points in between, gallery owners and artists are realizing local television programs can be an invaluable tool for reaching a wide audience of potential art patrons who may not necessarily visit a museum or step foot in a gallery. But they like a good story and want to know about the person behind the painting.

“There’s a direct correlation between the TV show and ticket sales to openings,” said Pam Rorke Levy, series producer for the San Francisco-based “Spark,” a behind-the-scenes, weekly TV show on KQED about Bay Area artists and arts organizations. Aside from the TV show, now in its second season, “Spark’s” three-prong approach also includes an educational outreach program and a Web site.

“If you’re a gallery owner, and one of your artists is on ‘Spark,’ you are exposing the artists you represent to a very broad population of people,” said Rorke Levy. “And in this work, we serve a really vital function of introducing the audience to the artist behind the art.”

While, traditionally, public television has produced its own content and sent it out to the community, now more and more local stations are looking for individuals and community groups to produce their own content on topics that interest them. Many of the stations either own cameras and digital production studios or at least partner with schools or other groups that do, which makes it easier for non-TV-production types to produce their own shows.

Additionally, surveys overwhelmingly suggest that local TV viewers want to see more arts and cultural shows on public broadcasting. So savvy artists and gallery reps are giving television audiences what they want.

Walking the Beat

In this regard, Robert Maniscalco is ahead of the pack. Three years ago, Maniscalco, a gallery owner, portrait artist and art educator, heard that Detroit Public Television was looking for new hosts and new shows.

“I thought this might be a good chance for me to see if I have any talent in this, definitely with my eye not toward being a star, but trying to market the art,” he said. “It’s not about being a local celebrity, it’s about creating visibility for the artwork.”

During the next couple of years, he put together a written proposal for a show in which he would walk the “Art Beat,” so to speak, interviewing the “usual and unusual suspects” about themselves and their art, while showing the creative process on television. He also recorded a couple of shows. “When I felt I had enough good tape, I sent it off to the station, along with an 18-part series outline,” he said, because PBS produces its series in 18 parts.

The show began airing in September, and now it’s on twice a week. It showcases strictly visuals arts.

“My show tries to find out who the real, serious artists in Detroit are,” he said. “I’m literally walking the beat in the ghettos: the real, gritty art world of Detroit.”

Now, Maniscalco’s looking at producing a national installment of the show and marketing it to a national audience.

He said cable access is an arena that gallery owners could–and should–exploit for free promotion. It’s often cheaper than running ads in national publications and daily newspapers. If gallery owners want to expand their market mid teach their communities about fine arts, it’s an effective way to reach the general public. They may not be buying fine art now, but, said Maniscalco, this may convert them. During the show, viewers see artists struggle with a new medium, or learn the story behind an image and get to know the artist himself. “Artists are real people, too,” Maniscalco said. Through “Art Beat,” the general public can develop a relationship with the person behind the art.

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