Before Abbi Jacobson started palling around New York with Ilana Glazer on "Broad City," she wanted to be an artist. The actress and comedian holds a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and spent her early 20s sneaking her illustrations into the MoMA gift shop, in hopes of being discovered by some hapless tourist.
This summer, Jacobson's back at the museum in an official capacity, hosting a new podcast produced by WNYC Studios and MoMA called A Piece of Work. Along with friends like Hannibal Buress, Questlove, RuPaul, and Tavi Gevinson, Jacobson explores MoMA's collection, digging into the ways art inspires and confounds us. A Piece of Work is as educational as it's entertaining, but don't expect it to feel like Art History 101; the 10-part podcast is inspired by frequently asked questions and responses from MoMA visitors, and it's as much about looking at art and not understanding what you're seeing as it is about elucidating an artist's intent.
When John Berger's Ways of Seeing came out in 1972, an entire generation gained access to an often elitist and insular art world. In 2017, A Piece of Work aims to do the same for the digital era. Whether or not you can rattle off facts about Meret Oppenheim or Fauvism is beside the point. Jacobson's podcast is about maybe not knowing what you're looking at, but being open to letting it affect you anyway.
"I don't think anyone's looking for expert advice on the art world, anyway. That's not what I'm there for," she continues. "I want the listener to feel like they're going with someone who's on their level."
Sure enough, listening to A Piece of Work feels like visiting a museum with a friend who minored in Art History. You'll learn new things, but their insight won't feel pretentious. Jacobson's joined along the way by MoMA curators, conservators, and educators, but the most magical moments are when she's hanging out at the museum with other celebrities.
"With Amir [Questlove], we went back into the restoration area of MoMA, which is already a bonkers place to be allowed into. There's just Picassos leaning on the wall. It's a very intimate and bizarrely casual way of seeing their collection," Jacobson says. "I had watched the video works by myself, but then watching them with RuPaul was totally different and way more fun. You know, it just exemplifies the point that there are so many different ways to view art, and that's exciting to me."
The inherent challenge of doing a podcast about art, of course, is that listeners can't see the works being discussed. Though many of the pieces are famous, Jacobson says A Piece of Work is about much more than MoMA's collection, and conversations with her guests vary dramatically. "That's what's cool about art, also. You can be looking at something and it makes you think of something totally different," Jacobson says. "The first thing we're talking about isn't really what the podcast is about. It's about bigger ideas."
Listeners can always Google the art they're learning about, which Jacobson encourages, but A Piece of Work is also about stripping away the pretension of a trip to the museum. "It's not like a deep, deep dive into the art world," Jacobson says. "But for most of us, I think it's a way in that is not only entertaining but really insightful, and it'll make you want to go and see art, which is what I hope that people take away from it."
A Piece of Work debuts July 10, with new episodes released every Monday and Wednesday through August 9, and will be available for download on WNYC's website, MoMA's website, Apple Podcasts, and wherever podcasts can be downloaded.