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At first, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Andy Cohen might seem like strange bedfellows. Rohatyn, a bold-faced name on New York’s art scene, is an esteemed art adviser and founder of the contemporary galleries Salon94 and Salon94 Freemans who boasts a Social Register pedigree (her father-in-law is Wall Street tycoon-cum-U.S. Ambassador Felix Rohatyn), a palatial Upper East Side pad (it’s a converted orphanage) and an impossibly chic wardrobe filled with Rick Owens, Balenciaga and custom Rodarte (she’s friends with Kate and Laura Mulleavy).
Cohen, meanwhile, is the Bravo TV executive best known for moderating the “Jerry Springer”-caliber catfights among the overtanned, overprocessed and overexposed ladies of the “Real Housewives” franchise during the network’s reunion specials.
But Rohatyn and Cohen have at least one thing in common — they grew up together outside St. Louis. And that’s how, Rohatyn says while perched near a coffee table by Japanese sculptor Takeshi Miyakawa in her lavish living room that doubles as Salon94’s showroom, she became a judge on Bravo’s new reality competition show “Work of Art.”
“I never imagined myself on TV. It’s never been a desire of mine. I don’t even necessarily watch TV,” insists Rohatyn, who will make her small-screen debut when the series premieres on June 9. The show, which follows the same format as “Top Chef” and “Project Runway,” features 14 up-and-coming fine artists as they complete episode-long challenges in the hopes of winning $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.
The premise was right up Rohatyn’s alley. “I think everybody should be talking about art all the time,” says the 43-year-old, whose fellow judges are auctioneer Simon de Pury and art critic Jerry Saltz. “So the idea of a television show that reaches a broad-base audience and gives people the tools with which to talk about art was just irresistible.”
Bravo hopes viewers will agree. Helping matters along is the fact that the show has a built-in celebrity endorsement in Sarah Jessica Parker — whose production company, Pretty Matches, coproduced the series — as well as the opportune time slot following “Top Chef,” one of the network’s highest-rated shows. Still, many are skeptical. While the creative-competition formula has generated hits like “Top Chef” and “Project Runway,” it has also produced flops like the interiors-based “Top Design.”
What’s more, critics wonder if audiences will view a show about fine art as too stuffy. Although, at a recent “Work of Art” press conference, Parker said the show’s objective is to “change the idea that art is for the rarefied and elite.”
But is a Rodarte-wearing gallerist such as Rohatyn the best person to get that message across? Yes, says Cohen. “It’s not like we’re putting her on a morning chat show,” he says. “We don’t cast people because they’re TV stars. We cast them because they are credible experts in their field.”
That much Rohatyn is, having begun her art education at birth, thanks to her art historian mother and art dealer father. Growing up, Rohatyn’s house was a veritable museum, right down to a bathroom covered in wallpaper depicting Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can. “She was what we call an art brat,” says friend and Art Production Fund co-founder Yvonne Force Villareal, who met Rohatyn on the art scene in the early Nineties (or, as she says, “before the term gallerina even existed”). “Now that does not make for a great eye. It makes for an educated eye,” says Villareal. “But Jeanne has a fantastic eye, one of the best I know.”
That eye helped Rohatyn earn an art history degree from Vassar and establish herself as an in-demand curator with a knack for putting together shows in unconventional locations, like the Tower Air Terminal at JFK Airport. In 2002, Rohatyn and her husband, Nicholas, opened Salon94 in the first two stories of their Upper East Side town house, hanging works by the likes of Marilyn Minter, Wang Qingsong and Julie Mehretu. Rohatyn’s taste leans toward forward-thinking or up-and-coming artists. “I don’t want to work with dead artists,” she says. “I really need that dialogue.” (Rohatyn will open a third branch of Salon94 this fall on the Bowery.)
But Rohatyn brought more than art expertise to the table during production. She tapped friend and stylist Amanda Ross to help her shop her closet for standout numbers to wear on camera, including pieces from Lanvin, Rick Owens and one particularly eye-catching, belly-bearing Rodarte number. Rohatyn also turned on the charm. Addressing a disappointing contestant, she delivers one of the season’s best lines: “You give performance art a bad name.”
Needless to say, for Rohatyn, who wishes she had gotten media training before appearing on camera, the experience was a tad outside her comfort zone. “I was a little surprised when Jeanne said she was going to be on the show. She’s always been shy around the camera,” says Villareal, who appears as a guest judge during one episode. “[But] she can really adapt and morph into the vehicle that needs to exist in order to get the message communicated. When we are 90 years old, she’s going to surprise me again by doing handstands in the middle of the room or something.”