Sarah Urist Green Has a New Frame of Mind

A former IMA staffer makes her PBS debut.

If you’ve followed the growth of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s contemporary-art department, you may know Sarah Urist Green as the curator behind Andy Warhol Enterprises (2010) and Graphite (2012), a co-developer of 100 Acres, and the commissioner of numerous works for the museum. Or perhaps you recognize her as the wife of New York Times bestselling author John Green. But if the name still doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably the target audience for The Art Assignment, her interactive PBS show launching this month.
Last year, PBS approached John, who’s also a YouTube superstar, seeking ideas for a new series to run on its hip, pop-culture–conscious online channel. Sarah came up with The Art Assignment; PBS got on board, and she left the IMA to host. In each weekly episode, she and a guest artist will issue viewers an assignment that the artist will then demonstrate. Expect a lot of banter, especially when John, who will co-produce, comes along on studio visits. The idea is that participants will complete the task and then share the result on social media.
Sarah hopes that The Art Assignment will help audience members broaden their own definition of art, demystify the art-making process, and prove that anybody can give it a try. “People get overwhelmed and think they’re going to fail,” she says. “I hope they can feel the freedom of playing and experimenting in a low-stakes environment.” That should be easier to accomplish online, where, whether they know it or not, many users are making and sharing art. “There’s this creator culture that’s already on the Internet,” says Sarah, pointing to memes like planking—a trend in which people posted humorous photographs of themselves lying facedown in public places—as modern performance pieces. Contemporary artists recently began tapping into this impulse. Take Paul McCarthy, who used his body as a paintbrush and challenged others to do the same, or Yoko Ono, who published a book of “event scores” with instructions like “Carry a bag of peas. Leave a pea wherever you go.” The Art Assignment joins the movement, with the help of artists here and beyond whom Green has already introduced at the IMA.
Her show, though, is bound to reach a much larger (albeit younger) audience than the museum’s. In the 18 months since its launch, PBS Digital Studios racked up more than 48 million views. The fact that Green is married to an uber-popular Web personality shouldn’t hurt The Art Assignment’s viewership, either. Though John is best known for his award-winning novels, his channels on YouTube, Vlog Brothers and Crash Course, boast more than a million subscribers each. Exposing that many people to contemporary art proved “tempting,” says Sarah, and lured her from curator to host. With any luck, John’s cult of Internet followers will return the sentiment.

The Greens outside the Brooklyn studio of artist and The Art Assignment guest David Brooks. (Photo courtesy Sarah Green)


This article appeared in the January 2014 issue.