Five Years Of “The Art Assignment”

With Flying Colors: Sarah Urist Green looks back on five years of constructing futuristic meat towers, cleaning up crayfish spills, and debunking museum myths—all in a day’s work for her YouTube series, “The Art Assignment.”
It’s one task you won’t procrastinate on. Green, 39, the former contemporary-art curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, gives out homework for “The Art Assignment.” But you’ll actually want to tackle it. From creating a work of art and then having someone destroy it, to meeting a friend at the precise geographic midpoint between the two of you, her 296,000 subscribers are always in for an adventure.

Think of it as Picasso, without pretense. Green was fed up with visitors thinking they had to be high-minded to appreciate art. “So many people [at the IMA] would walk into a gallery, throw their hands up, and say, ‘This is ridiculous,’’’ she says. “I thought a series of free videos would help me talk to those people. I knew it couldn’t happen through wall labels in a gallery.”

Wait, is that … John Green? The Fault in Our Stars novelist occasionally co-hosts the 8- to 20-minute episodes with his wife of 12 years. He plays an art-dummy middleman, asking the questions you’re secretly wondering about, too. “I just have to say that on some level, to me, art is painting,” he says in the first episode in response to the idea of performance art. “Well, it’s still that,” Sarah says. “It’s just that it’s also this too, now.”

Another big-name backer: supermodel Karlie Kloss. The former Victoria’s Secret angel included Green’s series on her list of favorite YouTube shows in a 2016 Elle UK story. Her verdict? “Sarah Green’s brilliant videos are an entertaining education in modern art.”

After 60 assignments, it was time to break the mold. In 2017, Green revamped the format. Instead of homework, she now might offer tips on how to visit an art museum (try hard to get in for free, wear sensible shoes) or discuss whether machines can make art. Also in the lineup? Fun stuff like Dali- and O’Keeffe-inspired “Art Cooking” and “Art Trips” to galleries in London, Venice, and Indianapolis.

Got an art emergency? Artline can help. How do I hate a painting intelligently? Have cell phones destroyed the image? Green’s art hotline, 901-602-ARTY, is here to help—well, was. “It was fun to field at first,” she says, “but it got so that the calls covered the same topics again and again.” She’s thinking of bringing it back, though.

She made the case for Kanye West. As a “newest-wave artist-artist,” that is, not a human being. “I’ve thought about taking that video down,” Green says. “The title is misleading. It’s not the case for Kanye; it’s the case for Kanye West as an artist, but that was too long.” In the episode, she proclaims, “The art world with Kanye in it is a better, more open, and less elitist art world.”

Controversy is welcome. When the British street artist Banksy shredded one of his paintings seconds after it sold for $1.4 million at a London auction in October, creating a “new” work of art, Green was ready. “There aren’t a lot of timely art-news events,” she says. “I’d been looking for a way to talk about Banksy for a while.” “Behind the Banksy Stunt” is her most popular video yet, with 611,000 views.

Let her clarify: She wasn’t screaming when she spilled 10 pounds of live crayfish all over her kitchen counter. She’d ordered the creepy-crawlies from Louisiana to use in an “Art Cooking” episode in which she constructed a Dali-inspired crayfish tower, but when she cut open the box, flesh, claws, and hundreds of pairs of beady eyes spilled out. So if she wasn’t screaming amid the crustacean cascade caught on video, what was she doing?
“Exclaiming,” she says. “I didn’t know how lively they would be.”