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Sarah Urist Green, Art Assigner



A month and more than 130,000 YouTube views ago, contemporary art curator Sarah Urist Green and her best-selling author/Internet celebrity husband, John, posted their first episode of "The Art Assignment."

Sarah's brainchild, the weekly PBS Digital Studios production asks its audience to complete art projects assigned by various artists chosen by Green, the former curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. For each episode, Green (and sometimes her husband John) travels to the chosen artist's studio locale, films the assignment and, with a little commentary, sends it to the Interwebs for anyone to complete. Then, they receive and document responses, tagged #theartassignment, across social media circles including Facebook, Twitter and more.

So far just a few Art Assignments are out, but more are coming from the Greens' Indianapolis offices. And they're in production, as across the hallway from her office, her husband sits in his own, preparing for the June 6 release of the film adaptation of his New York Times best-selling novel "The Fault in Our Stars." Meanwhile he continues his ongoing "vlogbrothers" video series with his brother, Hank.

Despite all that and her parenting duties (The couple is Mom and Dad to Alice, 10 months, and Henry, 4.), Green took some time to answer a few questions about "The Art Assignment:"

SBW: You've moved away from museum curator to becoming host of an Internet series. Can you compare the two -- what's changed and what's stayed the same?

Sarah Green: In a lot of ways, it's not really different for me. Working with artists, developing projects together is something I am very comfortable doing, and doing interviews with artists is the most fun thing in the world for me ... Being on camera is not comfortable. I'm trying to get more comfortable with it.

SBW: How many episodes are out there?

SG: We've filmed 12. But we've only aired three. What we call an episode is a video with an assignment, and we also put out little supplementary videos. We're releasing a video every Thursday, and pretty much every other week we'll put out an assignment. We're getting a ton of responses and it's great.

SBW: What are some of the responses like?

SG: People are actually doing the assignments. In general, people are really enthusiastic about the project and excited. I have been very pleasantly surprised by the kind of depth of discourse that's happening, even in the YouTube comments. YouTube comments are not famous for serious debate, but people are asking a lot of good questions about what we're doing.

SBW: Why did you want to create this series?

SG: It's an attempt to bring new audiences to contemporary art. I've always understood contemporary art to be the most accessible art, and I know it doesn't always have that reputation, but it is the art of our time. And it is the art that is living now, so there isn't this hurdle of imagining what something meant in the 17th Century. In general, I wanted to show contemporary art as I understand it, as fun and open and accessible and a world full of people who are doing really interesting, really unusual things and approaching their life and their work in a different way.

SBW: How do you create the art assignments?

SG: I commission the artists to come up with the assignments, so I kind of throw the ball to them and say, 'what kind of assignment would you like to give to the audience?' And then they come up with ideas and I shape them a little bit.

SBW: How are you picking the artists who make the art assignments?

SG: It's not just about what artists are making interesting art, but it's about who could communicate it well. So when I select someone, I not only like their work and think they are game for this, I also pick people who have a charismatic personality or would be intriguing in some way.

SBW: You have filmed a dozen art assignments. Will you give us a hint about what we'll see in the future?

SG: It's really very varied and a lot of my thought process in selecting the artists is thinking about making a wide variety of opportunities for people. So right now, I'm speaking to artists who I would like to develop a sort of movement-based assignment because I think that would really lend itself to video and to photography. And I love to see people do dance or movement exercises who wouldn't normally do that ... There's an upcoming one where the artist is going to be asking the audience to make a rug from discarded clothes and he teaches this method of doing that. So it ranges from dance exercise to making a rug from old clothes.

SBW: Are you and John personally doing all of the assignments?

SG: No (she laughs). I hope to. But, there are kind of two audiences for this. There's the audience that is following along as it goes and watching the videos as they come out and responding to them. And then there is this second audience I'm thinking of that may use these years down the line because it has the potential of being a great classroom resource. So this is not just a project that unfolds in real time. It's also something I'm developing as an archive that can be used far into the future.

SBW: So, really, you're the contemporary art counterpart to John Green.

SG: I've been thinking about this for a while, watching John operate and watching him develop his audience and develop a way of approaching subject matter in a way that maintains depth and nuance, but is also accessible.

SBW: Where did you get the idea?

SG: It came from a few things. One was that John and his brother, Hank, did a survey of their online community ... One of their questions was asking people what subject matter they were interested in learning more about. One of the top responses was art and not just art but contemporary art, which was really surprising to me. So that was the first thing and PBS Digital Studios had approached John and Hank about possibly collaborating and at that time John asked me, "Do you have any ideas?" So, that's when I started to think.

SBW: Do you have something you see as a big win already?

SG: One thing that has been really rewarding for me is talking to the artist afterwards about the responses coming in and about how impressed they are with what people are doing.

SBW: Would you quickly - on the spot -- give people an art assignment?

SG: Their assignment is to watch "The Art Assignment."

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