Heartland Art

A new exhibit at Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum showcases the full range of American artistry

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  • Philanthropy Magazine

Tucked in the northwest corner of Arkansas, in so-called “flyover country,” the town of Bentonville may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about innovation. But take a closer look. There’s the bustle of the glistening airport next door in Fayetteville, where 50 flights a day now converge from 14 cities coast to coast. There’s a healthy population that looks as if it’s been making good use of the town’s network of hiking and biking trails. There’s the sparkling town square.

And facing the town square is an unassuming storefront that reads “Walton’s 5-10.” This is where it began, when Sam Walton opened a discount store in 1950. His enterprise has since grown into the world’s largest private employer—with 2.2 million people on the payroll across 11,000 stores in 27 countries. And just up the road from the original discount store, Walmart continues to maintain its home office.

Behind its working storefront, the Five and Dime today leads into a small Walmart Museum. Featuring a re-creation of Walton’s office, one of the pickup trucks he used for hunting, and banners and brochures bearing the slogans that informed his personality and sense for business, the museum is a reminder of how Walton worked against the grain as one of the twentieth century’s most revolutionary market disruptors. Before there was Amazon or Uber, there was Sam Walton on a mission to give his customers the nation’s lowest prices, which he saw as a liberalizing force for good.

Walton had a friendly, open, small-town personality that was reflected in the culture of his stores. He cared little for establishment thinking or the trappings of trendy acclaim. “Swim upstream,” Walton wrote in his 1992 autobiography, published the year he died. “Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.”

A mission of discovery

This spirit lives on in Bentonville’s latest innovation. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in 2011 less than a mile from the original Five and Ten. Founded by Alice Walton, Sam’s only daughter, and constructed with funds provided by the Walton Family Foundation, Crystal Bridges bucks the conventional thinking on who, where, when, why, and what a major museum should be.

Even before it opened, there was the name. By identifying the institution after the natural water source that bubbles up beneath its patch of hill country, rather than after the patrons, the museum signals the middle-American modesty of the gift. A Walton museum could have gone anywhere—to Alice’s adoptive state of Texas, to expanding some famous existing institution, to creating a new edifice in one of the urban areas already known as a locus for art. Instead, Alice Walton brought her American treasures to the Ozarks, to a densely wooded ravine, and gave north of $1 billion to erect a striking new museum (designed by Moshe Safdie) for them.

Meg Hitchcock, “Subhan’ Allah: The Lord’s Prayer,” 2013. Letters from the Koran and Bible on paper.

Sam Walton once wrote that his daughter was “the most like me—a maverick.” A hint of confirmation comes from the fresh and unexpected exhibition that has just been shown at Crystal Bridges. “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” looks to America’s two-million-odd working artists in an attempt to uncover those whose “engagement, virtuosity, and appeal” have gone underappreciated.

The stories of how Crystal Bridges curators discovered these artists are part of the exhibition. The works on display were assembled through a 100,000-mile coast-to-coast-to-coast search that led to nearly 1,000 studio visits, with 102 of those artists represented in this show.

“The vision on which Crystal Bridges was founded, and its mission today, is to share the story and the history of America through its outstanding works of art,” Alice Walton tells me. “That’s exactly what ‘State of the Art’ is about—sharing works that are being created in artist studios all across the country, in our own time. They tell the story of America and enrich our understanding and appreciation of our nation.”

“State of the Art” stands in contrast to the existing “biennial” exhibitions that have purported to survey what’s going on in contemporary art and decide who’s in and who’s out. It cast its net far beyond the small subset of name-brand and trendsetting artists. “The mainstream is very narrow,” says Don Bacigalupi, the museum president who spearheaded the initiative with Walton. “Our exhibition is outside the mainstream structure of the art world.”    

”Bacigalupi says the inspiration for this project dates back to 2009, with the unorthodox location of the future museum serving as an impetus. “Since we have a new museum of American art in the middle of the country,” he told his board, “we have a vantage on what’s happening in the American scene that’s less biased, perhaps, than a New York perspective, or an L.A. perspective, or even a Chicago, San Francisco perspective. We might have a more open feel to what’s happening.”

The hard work began in early 2013, when Bacigalupi and his assistant curator Chad Alligood hit the road. Following the tips of 65 recommenders—curators, critics, collectors, academics, artists who run art spaces and programs—they worked their way across the country, region by region, in “a grassroots outreach effort.” At the heart of the search were their visits to the working studios of artists.

“Knowing the artists we all know wasn’t enough,” Bacigalupi writes in the exhibition catalogue. “We wanted to locate those who are not known to all of us. We would have to invent a new approach, or perhaps return to a long-gone, seemingly obsolete way of working. We’d have to get out there and see what art was being made, not just what art was being shown.”

The travel statistics from the ensuing year and a half illustrate how broadly the pair hunted for indigenous talent: 218 flights. 2,396 hours in rental cars. Temperatures ranging from 104 (San Antonio) to -16 (Omaha).

“We’d get to the region,” says Bacigalupi. “We’d rent a car, and we might see 12 artists a day for the next five or six days.” One time they covered 368 miles of territory in a single day. They were methodical in logging what they found, recording 1,247 hours of audio conversation and extensive video.

Bacigalupi was excited to return to the front lines of art. “I haven’t been a curator in 20 years. I’ve been a museum director since then. To be back in touch with so many artists, and to see the generation come up after me, new practices, new approaches, new artists, it’s incredibly exhilarating. Of course, it’s also exhausting to do all that work and all that travel,” he says, but it “makes me optimistic about the future of both art and the country to see these folks and ideas and the ways they are communicating and interacting.”

Bacigalupi characterizes the project as a “call to action—to ourselves and to our colleagues elsewhere—to get out and pay attention to the artists among us, in all our communities, big and small.” (Bacigalupi’s own next call to action is to become the founding president of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, described on page 14.)

Humane art

The grassroots process of conducting studio visits and face-to-face conversations across the country—rather than just tapping existing art networks and personal connections, art fairs, and websites—is as much what “State of the Art” has contributed to the art world as the work the curators unearthed. Their selections skew to art that evinces social engagement and tells a story beyond itself. Bacigalupi says they were particularly looking for “works of art that have a generosity of spirit, that open themselves to conversation, rather than works that are closed or hermetic.”

Take, for example, the three pieces from Meg Hitchcock. Born into an evangelical Christian household, Hitchcock has expanded her spiritual inquiry and devotional practice into her art. She constructs intricate collages of words cut from religious texts and reassembled into elaborate black-and-white geometric designs or organic patterns. “Meg’s work is incredibly evocative. It’s powerful,” says Bacigalupi. “It’s brilliantly made and executed, and it has a kind of immediate appeal.”

Then there’s Isabella Kirkland, an artist based in Sausalito, California, who doubles as a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. Working in a houseboat studio—with a cat whose hair forms her finest brushes—Kirkland paints astonishingly verdant scenes of nature in hyper-accurate, highly staged detail. She portrays species that live so far out of human sight—200 feet up in the canopy—that they have only recently been discovered. “I don’t want to be a scientific illustrator,” she writes. “I really want to talk to a different audience with this work. I want to celebrate this stuff and get people interested in it.”

Another highlight is Vanessa German, an artist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who repurposes found materials to make totemic “juju” dolls. “It’s immediately evident that German is a force of nature,” the curators note in the catalogue, “and her presence is one of caring and protection in a notoriously difficult area.” Recently German created Art House in a once-derelict home known for its violent past. Here she now brings together neighborhood children to “create beauty.” As someone who was “surrounded by a lot of death” as a kid, German says, “I am always looking for a way to be the most alive while I’m alive.”  

Amidst the saga of their road trip (finding a studio tucked among weeds and broken glass in the back of a deserted Coca-Cola bottling factory in Mississippi; handling day-old goats with artist-farmers in Gainesville, Florida; meeting creators in a 22-inch January snowstorm that paralyzed Baltimore), Bacigalupi says he and Alligood uncovered “incredible life stories that lead to the work” the artists make.

Tim Liddy, an artist in his early fifties that they met in St. Louis, was a hockey player and “devoted to the notion of becoming a professional.” In “a tragic accident at 16 years old, he broke his neck and became paralyzed.” Left with few gross motor skills, therapists “put a pencil in his hand,” which “set him off on a lifelong course to becoming an artist.” Today Liddy paints exacting trompe l’oeil images, moving around his studio on a Segway.

Such encounters resonated with the mission of Crystal Bridges. “The populist notion of building a museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, in a place where there is no history of visual-arts institutions,” says Bacigalupi, “making this gift to this community, this region, this country, is very much the underpinning of the show.…That kind of openness is a big part of it.”

Dallas-based painter Kim Cadmus Owens illustrates a frenetic digital ruckus.

Pitching in

The intensive travel and research that made “State of the Art” possible could not have taken place without substantial funding, and Bacigalupi had initial concerns when describing the concept to the museum’s broader base of supporters. There were no big-name artists, he notes. “No big themes. No splash. No precedent. No imagery to show them. I had to sit before the potential philanthropists and say, ‘Here’s this idea of unknown artists that we’re going to bring together and build this grand show.’ And I thought I was going to be greeted with blank stares and they were going to laugh me out of the room.”

Instead, the opposite occurred, and the exhibition became a “remarkable lesson in philanthropy. To a person, everyone we spoke to, whether corporate, individual, or foundation, wanted to be involved. They got excited by the notion that we were expanding the field.…We raised all of the money we needed to do this big show in a very short space of time.”

Exhibition sponsors include the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, Christie’s, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, L’Oréal Paris, John Tyson and Tyson Foods, 21C Museum Hotels, and the museum’s Global Initiative Fund and Art Now Fund. Just as free general admission to the museum is underwritten by Walmart, complimentary admission to “State of the Art” has been sponsored by Walmart and Sam’s Club. Donor support not only created the exhibition, but is now enabling extensive educational outreach. Many of the featured artists are being brought in to meet visitors and lead discussions.

“This region,” notes Bacigalupi, “was once incredibly poor. People had to pitch in together to succeed, to survive. So there is this notion of community sharing, all in, everyone participates. It is part of the fabric, the culture. People want to help, to support each other, they want to share. They want to be a part of it.”

Surveying the 19,000-square-foot show now in place, Alice Walton couldn’t be more impressed with the communal result. “I’m amazed and so proud to see how it has all come together,” she tells me. “We were excited about the idea of ‘State of the Art,’ and firmly behind the concept of visiting artists, in their studios, all across the country. Now to walk through the galleries and see this variety of work, brought together in one place.…The art inspires and moves me.”