Profiles in Art: Sarah Urist Green, The Art Assignment
In 2014, Sarah Urist Green left her job as a curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to start The Art Assignment, an educational art show hosted by PBS. The Art Assignment covers a variety of topics, including but not limited to making the case for famous/controversial pieces of art, highlighting cooking recipes by famous artists, and of course, giving viewers art assignments from renowned artists like the Guerilla Girls. On a more personal note from our team, Sarah can also be credited in encouraging this particular nerdy art endeavor.
Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan and Morgan Moore
Edited by: Morgan Moore and Tiffany Chan
Cover Image provided by Sarah Urist Green; all other images property of The Art Assignment
Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?
I have always loved art, but it took me a while to find my place in the field. And, of course, my place in the field continues to shift. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, with parents who love art and signed me up for art making classes around the city. Some of these were workshops with the incredibly talented artist Lonnie Holley, who at the time was known as “The Sandman.” Holley is an artist and musician, then known for his carvings of the cast-off foundry stone once used for linings in Birmingham’s defunct steel furnaces. He also made immersive art environments out of junk, and taught children art as well. He fascinated me, and still does.
I made my own art through college, studying studio art and art history, and after school I began working at a commercial art gallery in Chicago that focused on contemporary art from China and India. It was there that I interacted with curators and decided that that was the job I wanted, with a professional excuse to meet a lot of artists, study art, and be the middle person between art and its audience. That path entailed an MA in art history (at least), so I spent an enriching two years at Columbia University, and then landed a curatorial role at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Q: What is the ‘origin story’ of The Art Assignment?
Working in a museum was incredibly rewarding, but I kept having this nagging feeling that there was more I could be doing to help new audiences reach art. Museums are treasure troves of information and experiences, but it’s so difficult for most people to get to them. You may get there once on a school trip, or at best once a year, but even so I found that many people weren’t in the right mindset to experience art even when they were in front of it. The Art Assignment stemmed from my desire to create a freely available web series that shared with others what I loved most about being a curator, and that’s direct access to artists and the stories behind the art that enhanced my own experience of it. In 2013, I pitched a concept for the series to PBS Digital Studios, they accepted it, I quit my museum job, and in February 2014 we premiered our first episode.
The initial premise of the series was for each episode to introduce you to a working artist, from cities around the country, and have them offer you an assignment that relates to their way of working. During the episode you’d also hear from the artist about their artwork, and then I would put their work and the assignment into art historical context through brief, imaginative animations. Each episode serves as an open call for anyone to create their own responses and share them on their social media platforms of choice with #theartassignment, so we could find them. The series quickly expanded to include different types of episodes as well, including highlights of viewer responses, and discussions of topics that arose through the comments.
After over three years and 60 assignments, we’re taking a hiatus on new assignment episodes, but the assignments remain available for use in the classroom or at home, to anyone with internet access. We are now producing a range of videos that present art and art history through the lens of what’s happening today, like “The Case for Minimalism” and “The Case for Ai Weiwei,” a new format we call “Art Cooking” that presents moments in history when art and food intersect, along with “Art Trip” videos that take you to centers for art around the world.
Q: What does a normal day look like for you? What is your team’s workflow?
I work alongside a number of other producers and editors and writers who are part of the production company Complexly, LLC, which along with The Art Assignment produces a wide range of online educational video, like the Crash Course series. My primary collaborator on the Art Assignment is Mark Olsen, who directs and edits the videos, and also shoots almost all the video. When we’re not traveling to film future episodes, an average day involves Mark and me reviewing an in-process episode, discussing ways to improve it, and also talking through future filming plans. Then like everyone I have a mountain of email I’m always behind on, which I hack away at in fits and spurts, never getting to it all. I’ll probably have a couple calls throughout the day in my work producing future episodes, and Slack open to chat with my friends at PBS Digital Studios. I always have a browser window open with the current script I’m working on as well, with numerous tabs to research sources, and a pile of related books at my side. However, my most concentrated script writing time usually occurs late-night at home, after my kids are in bed.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your current job as host of The Art Assignment?
Seeing the art that is made in response to our assignments is always astounding to me. I’m so impressed by what people make, whether they are accomplished artists or individuals giving art a try for the first time since they were little. I am also indescribably rewarded when people leave comments on my videos saying they started the video dubious of the content and ended up convinced. It’s rare, but it does happen sometimes. If I can convert only a few people from being completely dismissive of art to being open to it, I consider my work a success.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far in this position?
I am always weighing what the YouTube platform and algorithm preferences and what kind of content I really feel is missing in the realm of online educational video about art. YouTube preferences videos that are extremely topical, and teaching art and art history doesn’t necessarily align with what Trump tweeted about in the past 24 hours. However, it’s the democratic nature of YouTube that makes me want to put our content there. We have a lot of people watch our videos who don’t self-select as “interested in art,” so when we do reach new audiences through the circus of YouTube, it’s immensely rewarding.
Q: What is an unexpected skill(s) you’ve had to learn “on the job”?
When I first started interviewing artists for the series, I quickly learned I couldn’t make a sound while the artist is talking. I was so used to verbally encouraging artists through a conversations, “mmhmms,” and so forth, but for the purposes of sound I had to be completely quiet. I’ve evolved a variety of visual reassurances instead, lots of head nodding and the like. I probably look ridiculous, but at least I’m not causing trouble for our audio mixer.
Q: What is the funniest/quirkiest/weirdest side job you have ever worked?
I was a Subway “sandwich artist” for a summer in high school and took a great deal of pride in my salad-making prowess.
Q: Hosting a show like the Art Assignment requires constant content creation. What inspires you? How do you avoid falling into a creative rut?
Artists, artists, and always artists. Meeting new artists, talking to artists, learning about new work, traveling to new places, and researching art and artists from home are my lifeblood.
Q: As someone who likes to cook, I really enjoy the series where you recreate foods from artists’ cookbooks, because it really humanizes them! How did that series come about?
I love to cook, and watch way too many cooking shows on YouTube and on broadcast TV. Our “Art Cooking” series magically combines my work with my hobby, and it is a joy to make. There was a wonderful exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago several years ago titled Feast, curated by Stephanie Smith. There’s a wonderful exhibition catalogue from it that documents many of the moments in more recent art history when artists have used food and cooking as an integral part of their work. That book has inspired me for some time, and I thought an approach of actually preparing some of the dishes artists have would be a good way to present the material. Art History gets a bad rap for being boring, but what if you could learn about art while watching me make a giant meat sculpture?
Q: Have there ever been times in your career where you doubted your path? How did those moments resolve?
Of course. I think it’s healthy to doubt what you’re doing, and to constantly ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you can’t present a good defense for your path, you should probably start charting a new course. I doubted my work as a museum curator, and that’s why I’m making The Art Assignment. In this role, I’m lucky to have creative control and that the series can shift with me as my interests shift. The evolution of the show is informed by my audiences, of course, and the feedback I get from trusted colleagues. Doubts I’ve had about the Art Assignment have resolved in our experimenting with new formats, going new places, and trying new approaches.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
There are a lot more jobs in the field than you’d think, and the arts are a huge economic driver in many cities. Growing up, I didn’t know many people who worked in the arts, but as I started to probe the surface of the field I realized how many different roles there are to play. Will you make hoards of money? No. But there are plenty of people who make a decent living working in the arts, and I don’t think jobs in the field are any more uncertain than in other kinds of work. I’d also add that YouTube didn’t exist when I graduated from college, and if I’d been set on a more proven field I never would have found myself doing what I am now.
Q: We know there are probably many, but what is one contentious issue in the art world that you are particularly passionate about?
This is not a contentious issue, but I think extended wall labels are a terrible way to learn about art. Do I have a better idea that is practical? No. I just know that the last thing I want to do in an art museum or gallery is read tiny text on the wall. Acoustiguides are great, yes, but I don’t love them either. Docents are also excellent, but sometimes I just want to be on my own with the work. Help me, art world! Come up with a better solution!
Q: What is the best advice that someone ever gave you? Alternatively, what is one piece of advice you would give your younger self or someone starting in the field?
Go back and do it again, and put in the work to make whatever you’re doing superlative.
A colleague once read a draft of an essay I was writing for a catalogue, and told me bluntly that it wasn’t anywhere near where it should be. I was disconsolate for a day, and then I picked myself up and started over again. My husband and I have a saying that you have to “take the time to make the better sandwich.” He will slap together some bread and meat and cheese and wonder why it doesn’t taste very good. But if you toast the bread, dig out the special mustard from the back of the fridge, broil the cheese on top of the meat, slice up some avocado, wash some lettuce, and cut it diagonally, THEN you have something worthwhile.
Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about your field of study or art history in general?
1) All art was once contemporary. That is, everything you think of as “traditional” or “normal” or “beautiful” was likely controversial and rule-breaking at the time it was made.
2) When art professionals go into a gallery and see something new, they don’t know what they’re looking at either. The difference between you and them is that they’re comfortable not knowing, and have been trained to enjoy the process of figuring out what’s interesting about what they’re experiencing. If you can tell yourself it’s ok to not know, then you open yourself up to a possibly fulfilling interaction with art.
Q: What are the most important actions that art history students or enthusiasts, especially if they’re not currently in a job in the arts, can take to stay observant and keep their skills sharp?
For art history students, I’d recommend you go to your professors’ office hours. Even if you don’t have something in particular to discuss. Get to know your professors, and they will be your biggest allies. And they will write you recommendation letters when you need them.
For art enthusiasts, I’d recommend taking advantage of all of the great content about art online: Artsy, Tate, KhanAcademy, SmartHistory, e-flux, Art21, and of course The Art Assignment. I’d also seek out lectures by visiting artists in your town. Even if they’re duds, it’s often valuable time to sit in a room and generate ideas. And of course, go look at art whenever you can. Take a friend with you to talk about it, or go on your own and give yourself the challenge of posting a pic of it to Instagram with a sentence that is more than just its basic information. And never be afraid to be critical of artwork. If you don’t like it, figure out why by talking it through or writing about it.
Just for fun…
Q: Can you recommend a wine and cheese (any drink/drunk food combination) to us?
Champagne and french fries. You can take this combo high or low end, and either is outstanding.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
I read fiction, exercise, drink wine, and let myself go to bed early when I want to.