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John and Sarah Green's PBS Digital Series The Art Assignment Makes Art Social, Accessible

Sarah and John Green are scouring the nation looking for contemporary art and those to assign it.
Sarah and John Green are scouring the nation looking for contemporary art and those to assign it.
Courtesy of the Greens

Nerdfighters and anyone else who generally enjoys cool things, get excited. And get ready for your assignment.

John Green, the bestselling author behind The Fault in Our Stars and co-founder of the highly followed YouTube channels Vlogbrothers and CrashCourse, and his wife, Sarah Urist Green, a contemporary art curator, have joined forces with PBS Digital Studios to launch The Art Assignment.

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This weekly web series features artists from around the country who pose an assignment for the viewers, who then complete the assignment themselves. Viewers can then post their responses and executions of these assignments on YouTube, PBS.org, or other social media sites with the hashtag #TheArtAssignment. Some of the episodes... will include responses from viewers, which have proven to be more than the creators or featured artists expected.

"[The artists featured in the previous videos] were all really blown away by not only the volume of responses but the quality of responses and the depth of the discourse on the comments," Sarah says.

While both John and Sarah have been collaborating on the series, Sarah is admittedly the brain behind the operation. After witnessing John and his brother Hank's success with Vlogbrothers, which created an entire following known as Nerdfighteria made up of individual fans, called Nerdfighters, Sarah says she realized the power of the Internet.

"I've been a curator for a number of years now and I love museums, I love working in a museum, but I was frustrated when I would spend years working on a show and our best numbers for attendance were 50,000 people," she says.

The Art Assignment's first episode, posted on February 20, has more than 100,000 views already.

The goal of The Art Assignment is not to just get as many views as possible, though. Sarah says her goal for this project is to use the videos as a platform to expose contemporary art "to an audience that doesn't necessarily consider themselves interested in art."

Both Sarah and John noted that part of the inspiration for The Art Assignment was that they felt that people don't seek out contemporary art as often as they should due to a variety of reasons, including lack of resources.

"One of the things that really appeals to me about Sarah's idea for The Art Assignment is that it could be a place where people could engage with each other and contemporary art but it would be free and open to everyone," John says.

 

And so far the series has not been shy about jumping right into some of the more abstract forms of contemporary art. The first episode, "Meet in the Middle," features New York City artists Douglas Paulson and Christopher Robbins who challenge viewers to pick a person, ideally a stranger, choose a time and a halfway place to meet, and then cease all communication until the pair meets at the set time and place.

John read our minds when he asked in the video how that assignment was art, but Sarah quoted Roy Ascott to explain that art can be "triggers for experiences," not just paintings or sculptures. Just like Sarah taking center stage in the videos, The Art Assignment aims to make the audience stretch beyond their comfort zone when thinking about what art is.

"We started with, I would say, sort of less traditional assignments and we will have more traditional assignments," she says. "Most of them we wanted to make broad enough so that people could interpret them in different ways and so that you didn't necessarily have to have a lot of money or skill or resources to do something."

The Art Assignment was designed for accessibility and audience engagement, a unique perk of hosting this series on YouTube and something that has been a common thread in John's previous online channels.

"I think the Internet can either be a place for distraction or a place for engagement and deepening contemplation," John says. "We like to build spaces that allow people to connect to each other and connect to their world and be more aware, more open to the world."

By making The Art Assignment digital, it also opens the actual assignments up to mediums exclusive to the Internet. Sarah mentioned that one upcoming featured artist, Toyin Odutola, plans to ask viewers to use animated gifs to express something meaningful.

The Greens and their crew plan on visiting and featuring artists from all over the US. While Sarah says they do not have any set plans to visit Arizona yet, their director, Mark Olsen, is from Phoenix and may just have to make a return visit with The Art Assignment.

But making sure the project highlights a variety of different cities means more than just which parts of the country Sarah, John, and the crew get to visit.

"Coming from Indianapolis where people would not necessarily consider that a contemporary art hub, I know that there are interesting things happening in cities all over the US and not just in New York and LA," Sarah says.

A new episode of The Art Assignment is added to the show's YouTube channel every Thursday. View them at www.youtube.com/theartassignment.

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