TO KEN BURNS, TELEVISION'S best known documentary maker, it is "disappointng" in both quantity and quality. To J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art, it is "totally inadequate." The Metropolitan Museum of Art gave up on it six years ago, as did the Getty Trust.
"It" is television about the visual arts, a subject that begs raising at a time when "American Visions," the eight-hour public television series on American art narrated by the critic Robert Hughes, is winning a sizable audience. As the first major series on art in years, "American Visions" stands out on television schedules like a Norman Rockwell painting on the set of "Roseanne."
Why is such an undertaking so rare?
Given the lives some artists have led (Caravaggio, who committed murder, and the bon vivant Whistler, among others) and given the eye-pleasing or eye-teasing qualities of many works, the art world would seem to be fertile ground for television producers and programmers. "American Visions," which concludes on Wednesday night with a segment on 90's artists like Jeff Koons, may not be "Seinfeld," but it is engaging.
Some art lovers hope it can demonstrate that there is a market for television about art, inspiring the creation of more programs. After all, the visual arts compete for an audience with other forms of art and entertainment, and getting just one television rating point (which represents 970,000 households) means nearly double the exposure of a blockbuster exhibition like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Splendors of Imperial China" last year. It drew nearly 500,000 visitors.
With a national boom in museumgoing and the dozens of cable channels and networks that need programming, television and art ought to be a match made in heaven. But visual arts programming in the United States is next to nil, taking up less than 0.5 percent of WNET's air time in a recent two-week period and less than 2 percent on Bravo. Even "American Visions" would not have been made without financing from the British Broadcasting Corporation. The commercial networks do nothing on the subject, although they once did. Meanwhile, the highest of the performing arts -- opera, ballet, classical music -- are thriving on television, with series like "Live From Lincoln Center" and "Dance in America."
The blame goes in several directions: art's "static" nature, financing problems, lack of audience interest and uninspired programming. Most crucial, perhaps, is the absence of a champion. There is no Ken Burns of the art world. Still, some people see signs of change.
By most accounts, the visual arts never had glory days on television, even during the golden age, when the other arts were given showcases like "Playhouse 90" and Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts."
But times have been much better. In the 1950's and 60's, even the networks broadcast visual arts programs. "The Artist at Work," an exhibition organized by the Museum of Television and Radio in 1991 (which has just finished a run in Los Angeles), included a visit with Picasso that was broadcast on NBC in 1957, a 1969 CBS special about art and technology, and a 1969 NBC program called "The American Image," which looked at the country through artists' eyes, using works from the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The program that tops the list, of course, is "Civilization," the 13-part BBC series in which the British art historian Kenneth Clark traced 2,000 years of Western culture. You cannot mention art and television without hearing, almost in a chorus, about that program, which was first shown in 1969 -- even though it was as much about music and architecture as the visual arts.
" 'Civilization' led to a series of programs that looked at individual artists," said Ronald C. Simon, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan. "It created a template for visual arts programming."
These artist profiles were shown throughout the 1970's on public television. "I think they were the exemplary programs of PBS," Mr. Simon said. "The one on Georgia O'Keeffe was a defining program for PBS. It was always part of the PBS trailers."
Mr. Simon, like others, feels that "these portraits really do make good TV." But he also believes that after a while "the genre wore itself out."
Meanwhile, also in the 1970's, the Metropolitan Museum of Art began doing a little film making. As Karl Katz, then the museum's chairman for special exhibits and loans and the organizer of several blockbusters, tells it: "I thought there had to be an afterlife for these programs. There was all this intellectual effort, and the only thing left was the catalogue." So the museum started making films.
In California, the Getty Trust was also getting into the act. It started a data base of films about art so that museums would know what existed. Soon Mr. Katz, unhappy with the quality of available films, was put in charge of the Metropolitan's new office for film and television, financed partly with Getty money. Between 1981 and 1991, the office made 33 films about both the permanent collection and special exhibitions, each project requiring an additional money-raising effort.
"It was a mix," said Kent Lydecker, the Metropolitan's associate director for education. There was one called "Glories of Medieval Art," and there was a tour of the museum's 1983 retrospective of Edouard Manet. About 20 of the films were shown on public television.
In 1991, when Mr. Katz retired from the museum, the Getty stopped financing the film office and it closed. The museum's focus shifted from film to video and "from outside to inside the museum," Mr. Lydecker said. The videos the Metropolitan makes now are used to document its events for the archives, for educational purposes and for showing within an exhibition.
The National Gallery of Art, among other organizations, used to make films about art. Its last -- "Masters of Illusion," a special documenting its "Circa 1492" exhibit -- ran on PBS in 1992. "American Masters" on PBS covers the occasional artist. A&E's popular "Biography" series has chronicled the lives of only two artists in recent years, Leonardo da Vinci and Peter Carl Faberge.
So Many Viewers, So Little Air Time
Some television executives doubt that there is an audience for such programs. But others contend that is nonsense.
"Every time I do a piece, it gets a huge response, and people say, 'Thank you, please do more,' " said the talk-show host Charlie Rose, who stumbled into the art-show business in early 1996, when the Vermeer exhibition was at the National Gallery in Washington. Mr. Rose, whose "Charlie Rose Show" is on public television, filmed a one-hour tour of the exhibit, guided by the curator, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., after several friends told Mr. Rose that Vermeer was their favorite painter. It ran as a PBS special.
Since then, Mr. Rose has done one-hour specials on the "Picasso and Portraiture" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Cezanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, plus a few shorter programs.
"Art ought to get more television time," Mr. Rose said, "and I'm going to do everything I can to change that."
Mr. Rose has some company in the belief that an audience for art programming exists. Ovation, the fledgling cable network devoted to the arts that had its premiere in April 1996, was founded on that premise. (Ovation is not widely available in the New York area.) As proof, Ovation executives, led by their chairman, Mr. Brown, of the National Gallery, brandish a 1994 survey of American adults. It found that nearly 40 percent of them had watched programs about the arts, that 57 percent were interested in the arts and that 87 percent of cable users would probably watch Ovation regularly.
More to the point, 71 percent of those who expressed an interest in the arts said they would like to watch programs about museums and visual arts exhibits. By contrast, only 58 percent wanted to watch opera, dance, drama and music performances. Confronted with a list of 20 possible types of arts programs, those going behind the scenes in museums came in second only to profiles of actors. Profiles about visual artists came in third.
In the real world, the numbers are a little mushier. The overnight ratings for "American Visions" on its first night, May 28, came in at 1.9, or roughly 1.8 million households watching, according to the research department of the Public Broadcasting Service. That is comparable to, say, the 1.9 that "Art of the Western World," a 1989 survey program narrated by Michael Wood, received and just below the prime-time average for public television overall, which is 2.2. The audience for the second part of "American Visions," which ran on June 4, dropped off a bit, to 1.7.
Still, both the 1.9 and 1.7 ratings outshine the average ratings for performing arts programming on public television. Over the last seven years, dance and musical performances have racked up average ratings of 1.4, while opera programs have earned an average of 1.1. PBS would not provide an average for visual arts programs, but a spokesman said they varied much more than those for performing arts, depending on the topic.
Although visual arts programs frequently get higher television ratings -- and show stronger vital signs in the real world than the performing arts -- they seem to capture less air time.
"We get a loyal but limited audience for arts programs in general," said Kathy Quattrone, executive vice president and chief of programming at PBS. PBS, she explained, has no target numbers for various kinds of programming.
"We look at programming opportunities that are coming our way at any one time," and try to put together the strongest schedule, she said. "I don't look at a chart and count programs."
While Ms. Quattrone says she does believe that "the visual arts definitely present a challenge" compared with the performing arts, which may be more telegenic because they involve action, she disputed the notion that the visual arts get short shrift on PBS. PBS, she said, did not keep track of programming by categories like visual arts. But an analysis of marketing material designed to show a snapshot of a random two weeks of programming at WNET, the public station in the New York area, yielded these results: 2 percent of the air time was devoted to music, 1 percent to dance and only 0.5 percent to visual arts. History and news, followed by children's programming, occupied the bulk of time.
Cable has also proved disappointing to lovers of the visual arts. An analysis of a typical Bravo schedule for a two-week period found that the cable network devoted just 2 percent of its time to visual arts, compared with 5 percent for music and more than 50 percent for film.
Ovation did best, giving 16 percent of its schedule to the visual arts, more than drama (12 percent) and dance (11 percent) but less than music (21 percent). As for A&E, the Arts & Entertainment Network, a common complaint of culture vultures is that it's "all E and no A."
Even the Distinguished Often Beg and Cajole
In 1981, Mr. Hughes won critical acclaim and a big audience for "The Shock of the New," his public television series on modernism. Soon thereafter, he went in search of financial backing for the television program that eventually became "American Visions."
He found no backers until 1993, when the BBC agreed to provide the money. Later, Time Warner, the parent of Mr. Hughes's regular employer, Time magazine, added to his kitty.
Money is definitely a problem, as Mr. Lydecker of the Metropolitan Museum said. "It's difficult to get funding for any art-related project. What you can't get past is the high cost of production."
Still, budgets for arts programming pale by comparison with those of commercial television. Mr. Hughes made his eight-hour program, which takes viewers to more than 100 locations around the United States, for $4.5 million. An hour of a news magazine program like "Dateline," which might go to three locations, costs about $400,000. An hour of prime-time network drama generally runs up costs of $1 million. The situation does not please Mr. Burns. "The fact that Robert Hughes should have to beg and cajole for money is a travesty," Mr. Burns said.
Although Mr. Burns usually chooses his subjects from history books, not art books (he did make a 90-minute biography of Thomas Hart Benton in 1989), he recounted a relevant tale from one of his current projects, a huge history of jazz. Despite his reputation, Mr. Burns said, he needed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to attract other money. "N.E.H. funding is a rigorously earned imprimatur that quite often invites the risk taking of others," he said.
But even the endowment seemed harder to convince about the arts than about history. "My proposal for 'The Civil War' was an inch thick," Mr. Burns said, referring to his highly acclaimed PBS series. "For 'Baseball,' it was two inches thick. And for 'Jazz,' it was four inches thick." A visual arts proposal, he guessed, would have had to be even thicker.
"Even with my credibility -- my brand name, as everyone calls it -- I have problems," he said. "It's beg, borrow and steal."
THE STYLE AND CONTENT
If Only Paintings Would Move Around a Little
Money woes are exacerbated by the nature of art programming. Many people echo Jac Venza, the director of cultural programming at WNET, who said, "Visual arts programs are the hardest to do."
Not only is art static and thus less appealing to a medium that loves motion, but people in the art world often tend to talk in the inaccessible language known as artspeak. Mr. Venza, for one, said that too many art programs failed to rise above the level of gallery tours.
Others complain that art programs come across as "educational" at a time when audiences want entertainment, even as purists blast the very idea that seeing art on television could in any way substitute for the real thing. The same complaint is often made about art on the Internet.
"And there are a lot of technical challenges," said Mr. Brown, like displaying vertical pictures in horizontal television space and getting use permissions from each of the artists, museums or collectors who own the works on any given program.
But these are defeatist attitudes that show a lack of will or creativity, proponents say. For Mr. Burns, whose documentaries regularly post ratings two and a half or three times the PBS average and more, the answer is simple: "Connect them to life."
Mr. Katz, who is now executive director of MUSE, a nonprofit organization that makes films, videos and CD-ROM's about art, believes that arts programs should play to the things they do better than museums do.
"What museums can't do effectively is contextualize art," he said. "They can't go to the artist's studio, or to an archeological site, or to the town in the painting."
There are some signs that arts programs are moving to a new level. Ovation has shown "Judging Vermeer," which looks at Vermeer through the eyes of a criminal judge who uses the pictures to relieve job stress, and "Angkor Wat," which visits the excavation of the ancient temples of Cambodia. WGBH, the public television station in Boston, is working on a four-part series called "Challenging Art," which examines how once-controversial art came to be considered classic. One segment focuses on visual art, the case of Manet's "Olympia."
Celebrity and technology are also being comandeered for the mission. In September, PBS plans to run "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting," a new series by the down-to-earth British nun whose past programs have attracted new viewers to art. And WETA, the public station in Washington, is using high-definition television to produce a gallery tour of "Impressionists on the Seine," a recent exhibit at the Phillips Collection.
"The images are socko," said David Thompson, program director for arts programs at WETA.
Few people, though, foresee a surge in the quantity of visual arts programming. But some optimists agree with Mr. Thompson's mixed prediction about the quality. "I am on alternate days encouraged and discouraged," he said. "But I think there's a new wave of arts programming that we're on the verge of."