Whitehot Magazine

Art in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview with Art21 Executive Director Tina Kukielski by Jill Conner

Jeff Wall, "Listener" (2015), inkjet print,159.4 x 233 cm. (Courtesy of the artist) © Jeff Wall.


On September 16th Art21 will launch the 8th Season of Art in the Twenty-First Century on PBS, taking viewers to Chicago, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C. to visit Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Barbara Kasten, Chris Ware, Natalia Almada, Minerva Cuevas, Damián Ortega, Pedro Reyes, Edgar Arceneaux, Liz Larner, Tala Madani, Diana Thater, Stan Douglas, Brian Jungen, Liz Magor and Jeff Wall. Claire Danes appears as the host for each episode that leaves behind the spectacle of New York City and focuses instead upon artists, their studios and the creation of their art before it is sent to an art gallery for exhibition. Season 8 of Art in the Twenty-First Century responds to a large change in the art world that finds itself in search of authenticity. As a result viewers embark on a journey, outside of the art gallery context, where the notion of site becomes very specific, revealing this juxtaposition as the primary anchor of meaning within an artwork. Tina Kukielski, Executive Director of Art21, highlights this significance even further in an interview with Whitehot Magazine, identifying this as the necessary bridge needed to connect the general public with contemporary art.

Jill Conner: Season 8 opens with an introduction by Claire Daines and then travels to specific cities along the West Coast. What brought about this shift from episodes addressing specific topics to ones that explore particular geographic areas?

Tina Kukielski: In turning to cities as a focus in our new season, we acknowledge a recent and emerging trend. In today’s globalized world, people are increasingly searching for connections to the local. Although it seems contradictory, where you live and work matters like never before. The subject of place was a theme Art21 addressed in its first ever broadcast over 15 years ago, however in Season 8 we are exploring what that idea means now. We found the same was true with artists, and that artists were increasingly active as citizens in the places where they live.

At Art21 we choose artists who excel in their field but also those that innovative. A thread this season is the story of emerging art centers in North America: Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Vancouver. This is a thread that has applications globally as we see an increasing de-centering of the art world, and the emergence of interesting art centers popping up internationally. In our four hours on television, the story of place emerges with the cities as a backdrop. We follow these artists wherever they go in their home cities, whether its Nick Cave shopping for knickknacks in the thrift stores of Chicago or Liz Magor finding inspiration in the natural wonders of Vancouver’s woodlands. It makes for very compelling filmic storytelling.

Liz Magor, "LightShed" (2005), cast aluminum (Installation view: Coal Harbour,Vancouver). (Courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries,Vancouver) © Liz Magor.

JC: Why was Claire Danes selected as a host? Is this the first time that Art21 has utilized someone from Hollywood to introduce contemporary art?

TK: Claire is the child of two artists and she grew up in a Soho artist loft. Like us, she is intimately connected to and interested in the artistic process. Our approach to storytelling was already a part of her makeup as a person and artist herself. As a leader in arts advocacy and arts education, ART21’s mission spoke to Claire on a basic but also deep level.

In fact we have a history of working with talent from Hollywood. In the past we have worked with such stars as Jane Alexander, Margaret Cho, David Alan Grier, Steve Martin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Isabella Rossellini, John Waters, and Sam Waterston to name a few. Our entire back catalogue of films is available online at art21.org or for downloads.

JC: How much has Art21 connected the general public to art that is being made today?

TK: It is our mission to build that bridge between the general public and the masterworks of today’s most compelling artists. We believe that we offer a tremendous and valuable resource in bringing the general public into the world of the artist, and the intimacy that we achieve is unlike any other kind of experience with an artist. We have produced over 50 hours of film and our best estimates show that one hour of our program on PBS reaches an audience of a million. Our series of shorts show in festival around the world. We regularly win awards. We are a go-to resource for individuals looking to know more about today’s living artists.

Edgar Arceneaux, "Until, Until, Until..." (2015). A Performa Commission. (Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa)

JC: What was it like putting together profiles of artists who are not widely known beyond their immediate community? Is it difficult to locate and focus on a select number of artists?

TK: The directors of our program this year are seasoned documentary filmmakers, as is our in-house staff. They are experts in their field and we are lucky to work with such talented individuals. When we choose an artist to bring into the Art21 community, it is about a sustained relationship. We frequently go back to tell another kind of story about an artist and how their work has been developing over the years since our initial broadcast such as we did around Kara Walker’s Domino Sugar Factory project, or our recent film about Carrie Mae Weems Grace Notes performance. Art21 provides artists with that essential platform that helps an artist and their work to become better known on the internationally scale. However, most of the artists we work with are now showing in major museums all over the world. The activity of these artists keeps us on our toes. There are countless stories to tell.

Nick Cave, "Soundsuit" (2009), mixed media including synthetic hair, 97 x 26 x 20 in. (Photo: James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York) © Nick Cave.


JC: This season presents contemporary art as more experiential, mobile and biographical. What, would you say, makes contemporary art successful?

TK: Art and life are intertwined. Art that acknowledges its relationship to life is going to be successful. Our program has a curatorial perspective, and one that is based in the belief that artists are vibrant and essential contributors to our culture. Producing art that we feel is germaine to existence now, and that draws on historic relationships and important influences whether it be literature, comics, science, the environment, politics, these are important messages for us to convey. We believe in fostering and advocating for a place where artistic ideas can been seen as innovative instead of threatening. We can all take something away from watching the creative process at work. WM


Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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