DULUTH —In the period between the quiet beginning and end of the documentary-style series “Relic Hunters” and the start of his new project, Ian Grant received pitches for other television shows that similarly combined history and travel.
One took a cue from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where a visitor can find the oddities magnified in liquid-filled jars: the intestines of cholera patients, the hands of a person who had gout, or the dried foot skin of a 23-year-old with a skin-picking compulsion.
“I would travel around the world looking for famous people’s various body parts,” Grant said in a recent phone interview, “Like Joan of Arc’s tibia.”
While that didn’t come to fruition — “I don’t know if that’s a bummer,” he said — Grant’s new program “Culture Quest” does have him again traveling the world, but to meet with living, breathing artists. Episodes are scheduled to begin airing this month on public television. There are six episodes in the first season, featuring trips to East Timor, Northern Australia, Western Mongolia, Kyoto and Puerto Rico.
This is a return to the role of curious, art-minded traveler for Grant, whose 2009 show “The Relic Hunter” aired on the Travel Channel. It was a short-lived run during an unpopular time slot — but it did win an Emmy Award.
“I always liked the general concept of looking at life through objects and art and artisanship and was trying to figure out a way to do that that was a little more in depth than what Travel Channel wants on their airwaves,” Grant said.
Grant, a 1987 graduate of Duluth Cathedral High School, owns Bjorling & Grant, a Minneapolis shop specializing in custom made furniture created from salvaged wood.
The lifelong traveler landed on the Travel Channel a decade ago after he auditioned for an HGTV show and was recognized by famous style consultant John Kitchener, who was familiar with Bjorling & Grant.
Kitchener, according to a 2009 story in the News Tribune, arranged for a film crew to follow Grant on a buying trip abroad and the short-lived series “The Relic Hunter” was born. But each episode aired only once, at 11 p.m. on Saturday nights.
“If it wasn’t my show, it would be comical,” Grant said. “The strange and good thing for me — even though they trashed it — they submitted it for an Emmy.”
It picked up the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Special Class series in 2010. It’s the kind of boost that has led to other pitches, like a mythical take on “The Relic Hunter” and the oddities show.
Grant started talking to public television heads about “Culture Quest” in 2016. He likes the freedom offered in this space where there is no push to hire a sidekick for the sake of plot conflict and controversy.
Style-wise, he admires the work of the late Anthony Bourdain.
“He just got to go out and let the show and the filming go where they organically went,” Grant said. “I really liked that sort of honesty instead of set-up pieces.”
In clips for “Culture Quest,” which are filmed by Ian Levasseur, Grant is seen visiting the Yolngu, an aboriginal group in Northern Australia, and learns about artists who use “modern techniques to buttress ancient” ones, as he says. (Ultimately, this is where he meets the man who will eventually create the show’s theme song.)
Javi Cintron, a mural artist in Puerto Rico, takes Grant on a tour of large-scale public art in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
This is preferable to gallery-style viewings, where people feel compelled to keep moving, according to the artist.
“People come down to see it more like — I can hang out and have coffee or have a beer, but I can see art,” Cintron says, as part of this casual art conversation that includes walking two dogs. “Because you are hanging out, you can actually look at it.”
In Western Mongolia, Grant strips down to bikini shorts and cowboy boots to grapple with a nationally ranked wrestler. Grant expressed concern about the size of his shorts. Rightly so.
“My butt ended up looking like a ripe tomato with my rubber band wrapped around it,” he says in the episode.
Gustavus Adolphus College, the St. Peter, Minnesota, school where Grant graduated with an art history degree in 1991, is the show’s premiere sponsor — and with that came a course tie-in. Students in three different classes, art and politically themed, were in contact with Grant in 2019-2020 as he traveled, and were able to read posts and watch videos about his trips in addition to asking questions and participating in a Zoom interview with, say, nomadic kids from Mongolia, a rebel fighter in East Timor, or a young artist in Kyoto.
Grant said travel is baked into his DNA. As a child, his family spent time in both Duluth and abroad. Coming back to Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s he said, he would see the similarities between Americans and someone in Germany, Switzerland, or Cypress.
“People are similar in so many ways,” he said. “I like that idea of going places and finding people who are doing fascinating — and some people will think strange and unusual — things. At the essence, this is Kumbaya-ish, this is a shared humanity.
“Basic hopes, basic needs, basic aspirations. I like to share that, to show the unusual, the things that are foreign while, in the same breath, why they’re doing it — because they need to earn money or want to be successful — is for very familiar human needs.”