Ian Forster – Director & Producer at Art21


Ian Forster - Director & Producer at Art21

Get ready for a good read! As a producer and director, Ian Forster creates documentary content for Art21’s various digital and broadcast programs. Since joining the organization in 2009, he has worked on five seasons of Art in the Twenty-First Century, most recently directing and producing the “London” and “Johannesburg” episodes. Additionally, he has overseen the digital series Extended Play since 2012. Forster has created over 100 documentary portraits featuring artists such as Kara Walker, Do Ho Suh, Anish Kapoor, Barbara Kruger, Zanele Muholi, and many more. Please enjoy reading this Frank Talk as much as we do!

What was your first job in the Arts? 

Does being a camp counselor in the arts and crafts lodge of a Boy Scout camp in rural Pennsylvania count? My co-counselor and I painted Keith Haring-inspired radiant babies throughout the building, which felt subtly subversive given the context.

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

The importance of finding your allies.

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

Professionally I was aiming to work in television or film, but pairing that with my more general interest in art didn’t seem possible until I came across a job listing at Art21 in 2009. It was very fortuitous.

What do you do now? 

I’m a producer at Art21, a non-profit that creates documentaries about contemporary artists. I direct and produce episodes of our PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, most recently the “London” episode. I also oversee Art21’s ongoing digital series Extended Play.

Where are you from? 

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

What is the arts community like there? 

It’s tiny but enthusiastic. Despite being such a small city, it provided me with great opportunities such as working as a projectionist at an indie cinema and attending an arts magnet school. A few years ago, I screened our “Johannesburg” episode, which I directed, at the city’s regional art museum. It was a nice homecoming of sorts.

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Certainly. I like to think I’m making the Art21 films for people outside of the major cultural capitals, who perhaps have fewer opportunities to see great art in person or to meet artists.

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

I think it’s important to check in with yourself every once and awhile and reflect on what attracted you to the arts in the first place.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

Hearing from educators when they use a new film in their classroom always feels like a big accomplishment. When you release something online or on TV, it’s hard to get feedback but hearing from educators is always special.

What has been a challenge for you?

Finding safe ways to conduct shoots during the pandemic has certainly been a challenge. Thankfully production crews are endlessly innovative and adaptable.

What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?

Unfortunately, I spend too much time doomscrolling online. I’m hoping to break that cycle in 2021.

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

While filming Andrea Zittel’s “Wagon Station Encampment” in Joshua Tree, the cinematographer and I got up before dawn so that we could document the Encampment’s residents waking up in their pods. It was a surreal, beautiful moment.

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

Mutual trust and respect always seems to be key, along with understanding what each other brings to the table.

What do you think makes a person hirable?

Their pre-existing skills are of course crucial but perhaps equally important is their enthusiasm to learn.

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?

I’m a terrible interviewee so I’m probably the wrong person to ask! But if I had to say something, you can always tell when a candidate really did their research about the organization in advance.

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

I asked Kara Walker a similar question for a short film and her answer has always stuck with me. She said “There’s no diploma in the world that declares you as an artist — it’s not like becoming a doctor, or something. You can declare yourself an artist and then figure out how to be an artist.” I think that mentality can apply to all aspects of the art world in that you don’t always need permission to do what you want.

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

It’s of course been hard to see art in person this year, but last December I caught the “Gerry Winogrand: Color” show at the Brooklyn Museum right before it closed. I felt like I could have lingered in there for hours.

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Lynda Benglis, Alex Da Corte, Keith Haring, Jack Whitten, Soufiane Ababri  

What artwork is in your home office?

A new addition is a Wolfgang Tillmans poster from the 2020Solidarity fundraiser that he spearheaded.

What is your greatest WFH challenge? Or a WFH luxury you don’t want to lose ever again?

I used to rush out the door each morning but now I savor many cups of coffee on my couch while reading or listening to the news before starting work. It will be hard to give that up.

How has your current job adapted to the new virtual landscape? What do you think can be done better?

As institutions shifted to producing digital content during the shutdown, we felt very grateful at Art21 to already be so digitally-focused. How films get made has changed but thankfully how we reach our audience with them has thankfully been relatively consistent.

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?

Absolutely, the art world has a long way to go in terms of practicing the values it publicly espouses.

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