Over a decade ago, Bravo aired a cult hit reality show called Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist from Magical Elves Productions, the same people behind hit reality shows Project Runway and Top Chef. Now MTV and the Smithsonian Channel have introduced a spiritual successor called The Exhibit—and it’s quietly one of the most revolutionary reality shows in a long time.
On paper, the show is exactly the sort of thing we’ve seen many times before: Seven artists from various backgrounds and various walks of life come together at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Musdeum And Sculpture Garden to make new art that fits a series of episodic challenges. A panel of judges, some of whom change with each episode, critique the art and pick a weekly champion. At the end, the winner of the whole series gets an exhibit in the museum and $100,000.
But there’s one crucial twist that subverts (and kind of breaks) the entire format: Nobody ever loses. Nobody gets sent home. There also aren’t prizes attached to the weekly challenges. The whole game, the only game, is making the best art you can each week and hoping that the judges liked your art enough to make you the winner. You could, in theory, not win a single challenge—called a “commission” here—and then still win the final prize if your collection as a whole is really strong.
Ah, but there’s a twist to the twist, and it’s so cleverly hidden that it seems like a secret trap that turns The Exhibit into a weird social experiment: There are no losers, but there are winners. Every week, the judges determine which art they liked the best, or which articulated the theme the best, and then everyone just sips champagne and congratulates them. There’s no mean judge who hates everything, at least not consistently, so this is where the drama mostly comes from (what little drama there is). In the first few episodes, there are talking-head interviews where some of the artists say, “well obviously so-and-so shouldn’t have won, it should’ve been me or such-and-such,” and the resentment—mild as it is—is palpable.
At the same time, though, all of the contestants seem generally cool and professional and smart about the stuff they make. A weird dynamic forms early on between the painters and the sculptors, with the sculptors generally skewing younger and wackier while the painters are a little more serious, and everyone dances around discussing whether or not they think any medium is more complex than any other medium (one artist notes that it’s at least much easier to hang a painting than it is to set up an installation, but the show moves past that pretty quickly).
The acknowledgement that everyone is working in different mediums with different rules and requirements also keeps the show from feeling overly snooty or pretentious. The artists all at least have some basic level of respect for any kind of art (if only because they’re all artists), so it’s less alienating that it might be otherwise. Co-host Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, also takes a moment during each episode to highlight famous works of art that follow that week’s theme is, adding a helpful educational angle for viewers that might not be totally invested in the art world.
MTV does have a history of thoughtful reality shows, but it also has a much bigger and more famous history of complete and utter trash. That makes The Exhibit feel like an outlier, but at the same time it kind of reflects the more thoughtful and conscientious nature of MTV’s perpetually shifting audience (whoever is young and hip at the time). The commission/theme in the first episode is all about gender, and the show takes a moment to point out how few countries around the world actually acknowledge the existence of more than two genders, and there’s a very fun moment where one of the artists designs a system for using estrogen and testosterone with a diffuser that prompts one of the judges—some NFT guy who feels completely out of place—to ask how she got those hormones.
The artist, Jillian, doesn’t miss a beat and asks him if he’s a narc. That’s the show’s vibe in a microcosm, and it’s definitely why “gender” was chosen as the first topic—to establish what the show’s angle is. It’s all about ignoring dumb barriers and actually promoting art and art history without necessarily creating a needlessly competitive winners/losers dichotomy. Nobody’s a loser because they’re all making their art