Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation
arts opp pagelet


"Art Meets Pop Culture"
Originally appeared in The Gazette, 7/24/14. Written by Alice Popovici

As she stood in the middle of the Brentwood Arts Exchange gallery with a bouquet of flowers Saturday evening, the winner of “Project America’s Next Top Master Artist” told about 55 friends, supporters and fellow artists that she almost didn’t enter the reality TV-style competition.

“I thought, ‘This is for kids, this is for young people,’” said Ellen Cornett, 63, of Cheverly moments after learning her three pastel drawings had received the highest number of votes — 1,122 — in the art organization’s competition modeled on reality television shows.

Saturday was the third and final round of the competition that started in May with 18 artists and had dwindled — elimination style — to the five people who had received the most votes. Throughout the competition contestants were encouraged to market themselves by posting their work on social media and asking their friends and followers to vote by text message.

After she had made it past the first round, Cornett said “I thought, ‘I should throw myself into this.’” She began posting her work on Facebook and asking her friends to repost it, and she sent out mass emails to all of her contacts. She said the response she received was “astonishing.”

Cornett, who said her pastel illustrations explore themes of “conflict, loss and relationships gone awry,” has won $500 and a solo show at the gallery.

Phil Davis, acting director of the Brentwood Arts Exchange, said the competition was inspired by popular shows such as “American Idol” and “Project Runway,” where winners are selected by popular vote. In keeping with the reality-TV model, before people could vote by text message, the 18 contestants were selected from more than 50 applicants by three judges who are art professionals.

Davis said he tried out the reality television model for the first time this year because he wanted to drive foot traffic to the Gateway Arts District gallery and make art more accessible to audiences. The arts district, which consists of Brentwood, North Brentwood, Mount Rainier and Hyattsville, is an effort among the four municipalities to revitalize their communities through art.

Davis said there is a tendency in the art community of “keeping the masses at arms’ distance,” but that popular culture has many ideas worth exploring and the art world could take a cue from reality television’s success in engaging with viewers.

“Usually in a gallery, only the curator gets a decision,” Davis said. “Why not find out what the audience wants?”

During the reception that followed the final round of the competition, Davis said he heard from many people who were excited to have an opportunity to support the artists and participate in the selection process.

The contest was open to applicants within a 150-mile radius of the gallery.

Melissa Burley, 48, of Laurel was one of the five finalists. Burley entered sculptures made of found objects such as bicycle spokes and laboratory vials.

“It’s been suspenseful since the beginning... the whole process has been a whirlwind,” said Burley, an art handler who has been a professional artist for about 30 years. “It’s not just about the art. It’s about the marketing and getting people to come to see you and vote for you.”

Davis said he was happy with the results of the competition, which has expanded the Brentwood Arts Exchange’s virtual audience, but he might adjust the format next time to get more people to walk into the gallery.

“Now I have to figure out how to turn it into a physical audience,” he said.