For two seasons Sean O’Neill, the director of public programs and cultural partnerships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, hosted CBC’s Crash Gallery, a reality series pitting three Canadian artists against one another in a competition to create under a time limit and be judged by an in-house audience.
Crash Gallery was brash and unapologetic, and just scratched the surface of how art is created and the thoughts and emotions that go into making it.
Now O’Neill is back on the CBC with an all-new series. In the Making, debuting Friday at 8:30 p.m., immerses O’Neill and viewers in the creative process as he spends time with eight leading Canadian artists who opened their doors to him and answered his questions. Friday’s debut finds him spending time with Lido Pimienta as she records her new album in Colombia. Pimienta grabbed headlines last November when she was accused of racism during a concert in Halifax.
We spoke to O’Neill about In the Making, art and who he thinks this series is aimed at. This interview has been edited and condensed.
You’re listed in the credits as not only a creator but also one of their producers. How did the idea for the show come about?
Sean O’Neill: It’s the show that I’ve wanted to see on CBC or really anywhere for a long time. A show that takes people inside the work and lives of some of Canada’s most extraordinary artists. But really takes you behind the scenes and up close in an intimate way inside the question of what does it mean an artist in the world today? After Crash Gallery ended I was talking to the CBC about how we might continue working together—I was already working with them in my capacity in my job at the AGO on a few projects—and it turned out they were thinking about what was next for them and the arts brand and were talking to White Pine Pictures about that. They kind of paired us together and said, ‘If you could make a show, what would you do?’ And this was the show we pitched.
You asked Lido some hard questions and some even better follow-up questions. Kudos to you and your crew for coming up with great questions.
SON: Thank you so much. That’s really nice of you to say. We worked super hard on this. I should say that Rachel Matlow, the story producer who was on Q, was a huge help on teaching me what it means to interview and we had many test runs. If it does feel intimate or it does feel like there’s a kind of trust or an ability to go a little bit further in the show, yes, that is what we were trying to do. Part of that was how we approached our subjects and how we approach each artist and how our great crews were. I think everything we were trying to do with the artist was in service of trying to create that kind of intimacy that we could carry forward to the viewers. I really appreciate you picking up on it, because it was really important to me to try to get to that bar.
How did you decide who you’re going to cover in this first season?
SON: Very carefully. Because I was working at the AGO as the head of programming and then we were doing concerts, and we did dance, and we did talks, and we did film, so I was already, in the 10 years I worked there, I was in touch with so many artists and it was my job to be familiar with what was happening in Canada and around the world. So, when we sat down, we had a small brain trust of people who were working on the show and we put together a list of I think somewhere between 80 and 100 artists who we just thought would be interesting.
Another criteria is that they had to be doing something major during the time we were shooting. Our promise to the viewer is that you’re going to see these artists at a pivotal moment. Something transformational is happening in their work and their lives and we want to give that slice of life, so that was one criteria and it just narrowed it immediately.
And then, because I was a host of the show and because it was the first season, I wanted to make sure these were artists who I was genuinely passionate about and respected because we felt that you would be able to feel that as the viewer. And we were thinking about the representation of where our subjects were living and were they working across the country. We wanted to make sure that we had a variety of identity positions and perspectives of the world represented in the show. And then, none of our artists said no, which was kind of amazing.
Were there any surprises during production?
SON: I think that the whole trip to Colombia with Lido was a really good example. Every artist is different and our ethic as we were going in was we’re not a formatted show, we’re a documentary show, so we are certainly having conversations about what we’re going to shoot and where we’re going to go each day, but we’re also going to be prepared to throw that out on the day if the artist is compelled to do something else. And we’ll have that conversation with them.
And with Lido, we were going to La Guajira in Colombia, which is a place not like New York or LA or to Paris or to Delhi where there’s a film industry there, and you can pull your fixers and you can have the people that you might bring on to the core crew as you arrive. We were relying on Lido and her family to do everything from driving us around, in some cases feed us and they cooked us some of the most incredible food of our lives, but also Lido knew the land and we wanted to respect Lido’s knowledge of that land and of that place. It was a very personal episode, because Lido has family members who she loved who were buried there.
Who do you view the In the Making audience as?
SON: I think in some ways you find out who your audience is in the first season. And I think both we as producers and the CBC are curious to find out who does tune in. And I think who tunes in on TV versus digitally will be very different. We’re on after Marketplace on Friday nights, which is, even in terms of the CBC, a relatively older, whiter audience. But who tunes in online remains to be seen. I was keeping kind of two viewers in mind as we were making the show.
One is an aficionado within the arts, an appreciator of the arts, who has knowledge, who might be an artist, who might work in the arts. I wanted those people who put art at the centre of their lives to respect the show and to feel like we weren’t reducing things and that we weren’t turning something that somebody’s spent their life working on into some sort of slick TV show. That was one audience.
The other audience … Well, I grew up in a small town in Ontario with no real connection to what this world was and my interest and passion for it and art changed my own life as a kid. It gave me something to imagine in terms of a future that I would find exciting and desirable and meaningful and so I want that person who is interested, who maybe is moved by a song on the radio in their car in the morning, in terms of their experience with art, to be able to turn on the show and feel like there’s a great story being told that they can be drawn into emotionally and they can learn from it and that it’s just an exciting thing to watch.
And maybe along the way what happens is that the viewer is introduced to some of the foremost artists in the country.
In the Making airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on CBC. All eight episodes will be available for streaming on the CBC app and website this Friday after the broadcast.
Image courtesy of CBC.