Interview – Nick Gilhool on casting Bravo’s Work of Art, Season 2

I got on the phone this week with Nick Gilhool, senior vice president in casting for Magical Elves, and the guy who will be bringing Work of Art’s casting call to Chicago next Friday and maybe a few Chicago artists to Work of Art. You may remember him from this interview he did last year with Art Fag City, but that was back in the halcyon days, before the #workofart tweetstorms and everything else.

I certainly had some questions, which are the ones in bold below.

Nicholas Frank, IT GETS GOOD

Nicholas Frank, IT GETS GOOD

Was your company the same one that did the casting in Chicago last season?

Yeah, we’re basically the in-house casting arm of Magical Elves, which is one of the two production companies that did Work of Art. We’re excited to come back there because Chicago was really great for us and in particular SAIC was very welcoming. We got lots of great artists there last time we came out.

What has it been like to be with the show from the beginning, then to see the response it got?

It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to the possibility of the show, and then to the actuality of the show, and now the reaction to it. There have been some understandable reactions, some pleasant surprises, and some people who were more happy with what they hoped would be true than what actually happened.

It was fun to have a national watercooler topic of conversation. Normally in art we don’t have one, so a lot of that energy came out pretty strong.

Yeah, I think everyone who I talked to then, and now up to the casting for the second season – everyone’s talking about it. Whether you hate it or love to hate it or were very interested in it or had a mixed feeling about it or loved it, at least people are talking about it. A lot of people in the art world seem to be thrilled that that’s the case, no matter what they themselves thought about it.

I want to get back to some of that response in a second, but first I want to ask about the judges. Who will be on the judging panel this year?

Well Simon de Pury is going to be back – he headed up our casting panel last time around, and he’s going to do so again. Typically we don’t release the names of the people who are going to be there ahead of time, and then only with their permission afterwards, but it’s safe to say that they’re names that people will know. In each market we rely on people who have great reputations in that city for identifying exciting emerging artists, and whose business it is on a daily basis to see evolving and emerging artists, and also less-known artists who’ve already sort of emerged.

So local curators, gallerists?

Yeah, those kinds of people. Artists also.

When you’re doing the casting, do you ever contact people you think should come in? Do you ever find cast apart from the casting calls?

Sort of – we do reach out to people in the art community who know a lot more than we do to get their recomendations about who to contact, but even those people have to go through the same process.

Do you personally have any history with art? Do you collect? Do you have friends who are artists?

No, not really. One of the things I love about my job is that I can pretty much come in as an amateur in all the fields where we do various shows and occupy various spaces, and by the end of it at least hope to be a knowledgeable amateur as opposed to knowing nothing. That’s why we rely on people who have a long history in whatever world we’re in, like in the art world, to help us get it right.

How have your feelings on the art world been changed by this show?

It’s a fascinating world. I love the prospect of dipping my toes in the art world. It’s a lively and very human place, and there’s so much going on in it. I think that anytime people take on expressing their own voice, through whatever medium, I think you’re going to get some amazing results. That’s why it’s really fun to look at things and have these experiences. It’s been fabulous. But I haven’t yet started to put my uh, vast wealth behind any artist if that’s what you’re asking. (laughs)

Ok, so let’s talk about some of those complaints that some of the art world has had with the show. I remember right at the start everyone asking about all the painters on the show. Are you looking for more varied media this time around?

I think that’s just how it came out last season. It’s a very subjective process – and we never represent that as any different – and in that process the people who floated to the top happened to have a collection of media that could have been more diverse, and in the coming seasons – hopefully – uh, we were excited last year and we’re excited this year just to open it up to everyone and see what rises to the top. Every time it’s kind of a new experience. But yeah, we really want to have present in our process the most current things going on in the art world from year to year.

So the painters were just the most interesting last year?

I don’t why that happened honestly; I guess that’s the way it shook out. It’s interesting, my impression going into it that painters were kind of — you know, as someone who knew nothing, I wasn’t expecting to have a lot of straight-on painters. And suddenly we did, but it happened very organically. We don’t tend to do too much micro-managing unless something’s brazenly out of whack, and that’s just something that happened on its own and we kept it as it was.

A lot of talk I heard was about the way reality TV treats identity, and how in the art world we have a big problem with people getting reduced to single-word identities. I know a lot of artists who hate the fact that they’re known or feel like they’re known as black artists, or gay artists, or street artists, etc. Trying to get beyond that is very hard for them, and that a reality TV show like Work of Art only encourages that, since you kind of have to pigeon-hole your actors to make them characters. What are your thoughts about that?

I think it’s something that we’re aware of. One thing we try to do is have our shows be accessible to a wide audience, and sometimes it’s an overly simplistic thing to say that maybe people will only watch people like themselves, but its part of the mix. There are lots of different kinds of variety and diversity, and ways of looking at diversity. One of them, in the art world, is the medium you’re expressing yourself in. And I think moving forward there can be more diversity in that, and I think that’s going to be an important issue.

I think as far as words like male and female, white, people of color… often what we want is stories that come from different voices, and one of the things that still means something in our culture, unfortunately or not, is someone’s experiences according to what who other people see them as. It’s a pretty complex answer to a pretty complex question, but I think the important thing to take away is that art is a fascinating action because it gives voice to what people are thinking and feeling on the inside, and if you can get a great diversity of actors – the artists – then you will have a very interesting collection of people to watch and to see what they’re doing.

Let’s talk about the paper application. Did you have any part in it?

(laughs) Yes. Ok, what are the complaints? What have people been saying? What occurs to you when you think of that application? Other than, you know, good lord…

Well, aside from the ten pages of legalese –

Yeah, that I can’t take responsibility for, thank god.

Well, first question is, is this the same one that was submitted last year? Were there some changes?

By and large it’s the same one we used last year. If you can believe it, we actually tried to cut some things down. So it’s shorter maybe? But we ask a lot of things – and just as an apology, or explanation, we ask a lot of things because we want to know a lot of things about the people we’re going to spend five weeks with. There’s never a right way to do it; you never how a person will react to a question. Sometimes a person will tell you something you never would have guessed had you just talked to them for five minutes. So we take lots of different angles to get at the same objective, which again is just trying to get to know people as well as humanly possible in a short amount of time. It’s really not as much a science as it is an art. We’re trying to do something impossible, which is trying to get to know somebody as well as we can.

I know one of the things I noticed – and which I didn’t expect – when I sort of entered into the art world is how generally friendly everyone is. So it was entertaining to see the more angry questions on the application like Who do you think is over-rated? What dealer would you most like to punch in the face? Maybe that last one wasn’t on there…

But that’s the interpretation, sure. (laughs) Well actually we ask those same questions in all the worlds we’re in, like the food world, or the cooking world. A question like that about who’s over-rated actually elicits a lot of pointed barbs in the food world. In the art world, it didn’t – I think you’re right, I think there are some generalities that you can apply, even though you shouldn’t, and one of them is that people are angry. You know, artists are really focused on their own work, and they’re really enthusiastic about other people. It’s not really so much about the hating as it is about the – oh, this is… I can’t believe I’m about to say this – about the creating.


“It’s not about the hating, it’s about the creating.” Ugh, that kind of sucks that I just said that.

Ok, so let’s say I show up to the Sullivan Galleries on the 22nd wanting to be America’s next top artist. What advice would you have? What can I pass along to the people who will be reading this?

One thing that’s very important – really read the requirements posted on, and download the application on the first page; there are some very clear instructions there to follow. Beyond that, bring a portfolio that is easy to present and for someone who is reviewing it to get through. Put your best foot forward so that someone can get a sense of what you’re about in a really short amount of time. There’s no mistaking that this is a very quick kind of process, and very subjective. I’m sure a lot of people slip through the cracks that are outstandingly talented, but we’re just doing what we can do to kind of capture people who are doing exciting work for the show. I think people should come with a lot of patience, and bring some water because it could be big numbers. We’re set up for that, but you know, we’re only human and we’re trying to get through this as quickly as we can while trying to give everyone the chance to show, since they spent the time to come out. I think that covers it.

What is the interview process like? Is it a tiered system?

Yeah, not everybody makes it past the first part, and not everyone gets called back, and not everybody goes onto the next stage which is sending in material that we ask for. So there’s the open call, and then there’s the call back, then there’s a semi-finalist kind of thing, then there’s the finalists, and then there’s the cast. It is a tiered system and at each stage there is something different that we’re asking from the person. But aside from bringing in their own work in a clear and good light for them, there’s really nothing anyone can prepare, because it’s all stuff we’ll be asking for. People will have to just have to roll with it.

You mentioned big numbers – how many people did you have show up last year?

We had over four hundred come out last year in Chicago. We had 1700 people come out total, and that was before anybody had seen the show or knew about it, so who knows. This could be big.

Well there’s a chance I’ll be there – don’t tell anyone though. Any last thoughts?

The biggest thing we want people to know is that whoever thinks this could be something positive for them, we’re here to support you. It’s not for everybody, but you’d be surprised. This is – there are snowflakes in the art world just like it is anywhere else, you know, to get from where you’re not living on to where you are making a living from selling your art and doing shows. And if this could do that for some people, then fantastic, and we would love to see some exciting art and see some exciting things happen. We did last time and I’m sure we will this time.

(Steve Ruiz)

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  1. From SAIC hosts Work of Art: The Next Great Artist casting call: Photo gallery | Chicago Top 100 on 23 Sep 2010 at 3:47 PM

    […] would love some more exhibitionism and insult-trading. Chicago writer Steve Ruiz has an interesting interview with Magical Elves’ Nick […]

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