If Andy Warhol were alive today, said art gallery owner Bill Powers, he’d be an executive producer of reality television. Specifically, for Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, the Bravo network’s stab at applying the Project Runway format to fine art.
Sitting in his Bank Street home recently, Mr. Powers talked about being a judge on the show, about the flak he expects from the old-guard art world for doing it and about what his goals are. “Hopefully, this show creates a bigger audience for art as a whole,” he said.
Forgive Mr. Powers’ enthusiasm-or defensiveness-but he’s just a couple of minutes into his own 15 of fame, as a judge on the show; a curator for a smart, scholarly, just-opened exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery bookstore; and the owner of Half Gallery, a fledgling but buzzy Lower East Side space. He co-owns it with infamous author James Frey and Kate Spade CEO Andy Spade; its celebrity-packed openings make the gossip columns as much as they do the art magazines. When Work of Art premieres in June, Mr. Powers will become a TV personality himself and one of the medium’s few faces of the art world. The bearded, bright-eyed West Village dad is gifted with scraggly hair, an inventive wardrobe and a giddy enthusiasm about art. TV will love him for it.
Appearing in Work of Art is an extension of the democratic attitude he said he’s tried to cultivate at Half Gallery, a sunny shoebox of a space on Forsyth Street. As he sees it, the gallery, which has shown everyone from fashion photographer Mark Borthwick to performance artist Buster Balloon, is one of the more open-minded venues in an art world that tends toward incestuousness. “It’s easy to get stuck in some hierarchy, where you only look at artists if they show at certain galleries,” he said. Having to find “emerging talent for this space helped me go back to just trusting my eye.”
That instinct made him a natural judge for Work of Art. The program will bring together 14 aspiring artists to compete for a solo show at a “nationally recognized museum,” according to Bravo, plus a cash prize. They’ll vie in painting, sculpture and performance art, all under the zesty, watchful tutelage of co-host and well-known art auctioneer Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury. (He, early in the season, mutters the memorable phrase: “Well, the vibrator changes everything.”) The reality show premieres in June, but art-world guests are invited to a screening April 7 at the Paley Center. In attendance will be executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker, Mr. de Pury and the judges. Joining Mr. Powers on the panel are Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, owner of the Salon 94 Galleries both uptown and downtown, and Jerry Saltz, current art critic for New York magazine.
Cringing already? Some in the snobby art world may be horrified to see artist pitted against artist, but Mr. Powers doesn’t care. “Open your eyes,” he said, “the world is a competitive place. Larry Gagosian can only show so many artists. There’s only so many people admitted to the [Whitney] Biennial. The idea that this show is a competition but the real art world isn’t is a falsehood.”
Mr. Powers took the gig only after consulting with his wife, designer Cynthia Rowley, who had been a guest judge on Project Runway. (They live in the Village with their three children.) Since his show is from Magical Elves, the same producers who did Runway and Top Chef, he’s well aware it could become a similar phenomenon, especially since some of the artist contestants are already more established than the typical seamstress on Runway.
Mr. Frey said he believes that Bravo has chosen well. Mr. Powers loves contemporary art, “loves looking at it, learning about it, talking about it, showing it,” wrote Mr. Frey in an email. The two have been friends for years-long before the scandal of A Million Little Pieces-first bonding over contemporary art at a Phillips de Pury auction. “He has a huge base of knowledge in contemporary art,” said Mr. Frey. “And Bill throws a great party.”
Mr. Powers, the former editor of Blackbook, came to the art world, and collecting, tangentially. He started buying in the late ’90s, with a $250 Terry Richardson print and an adorable Tom Sachs “Tiffany” handgun. Until that point, he said, “I’d always thought that you had to be some kind of crazy millionaire to collect art.”
He’s right-you don’t. (Although it helps.) The easiest way to own art you can’t afford is to buy art books, he said, and he has done that, stockpiling enough gorgeous rare ones for a show at the Madison Avenue bookstore of powerhouse dealer Larry Gagosian. He talks about them with the joy of a child showing off his action figures.
“I may not be able to buy a Francis Bacon painting,” he said, “but I can buy a really nice Francis Bacon book.”
One of the most striking and treasured volumes on offer at the Gagosian bookstore on Madison Avenue is the curator’s copy of Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, inscribed by the artist with a Campbell’s soup doodle ($5,500). Mr. Warhol, of course, loved television, Mr. Powers noted. “One of the highlights of his career was being on Love Boat,” he said.