Expert Eye

Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi on His Epic Search for America's Best Unknown Artists

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Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi on His Epic Search for America's Best Unknown Artists
Crystal Bridges president Don Bacigalupi

Since the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on the propitious date of November 11, 2011 (aka 11.11.11), the international art community has been somewhat perplexed as to what they should make of this unorthodox undertaking: a hulking glass-and-steel institution, designed by Moshe Safdie and filled with a wealth of the country's masterpieces, that Walmart heiress Alice Walton deposited in Bentonville, Arkansas, the town where Sam Walton opened the humble five-and-dime that grew into a half-trillion-dollar-a-year international behemoth. With its $800 million endowment and middle-America location so far off the beaten art track, the museum was unlike any other in the nation, and regarded with a mix of curiosity and suspicion.

Now a bold new exhibition at Crystal Bridges is bringing an entirely new form of attention to the Bentonville anomaly—one of rapt excitement and forehead-smacking amazement that no one had thought of its idea before. Called "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now," the show is a survey of 227 works by 102 artists who have been creating compelling art in regions across America, all outside of the purview of the professional, coast-based art world. Spread throughout the museum's 19,000 feet of gallery space, it's a red-blooded rejoinder to the Whitney Museum of American Art's famous Biennial—which is often noted for being less-than-nativist in its definition of "American," admitting artists based around the world—and a corrective to the notion that important art is the product of New York, Los Angeles, and other cities alone (unless it's by "outsider" artists).

The organizers of the show, Crystal Bridges president Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood, selected the artists on view over the course of an epic nine-month canvassing of the United States, rummaging in studios both rural and urban to find artists, both young and old, who had not yet received their due on the national stage. With the show now freshly open to the public (it runs through January 19) Artspace's Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Bacigalupi about the colossal undertaking, and what he learned about American art over the course of visits to artist studios from sea to shining sea. 

What is the animating idea behind the show, and where did it come from? 

It came from a very early conversation that I had with Alice Walton back in 2009 when she first asked me to come to Crystal Bridges, even before the museum was built. We were talking about some of the unique opportunities that a museum of American art in the middle of the country might have, and I posited that after the museum was established there might be an opportunity to rethink the way the story of contemporary American art is told in the country, and to be able to assess the art being made in all regions from the perspective of the middle of the country, rather than the skewed false Steinbergian perspective from New York or the West coast. You know, the flyover state thing.

Having lived in the middle of the country now for quite a bit of my career—in Texas, Ohio, and Arkansas—I thought it would be a useful exercise to think about how you might go about doing that. Then, a year after the museum was up and running and successful, we circled back to the idea and really challenged ourselves—or I should say I was challenged by the board—to put some meat on that carcass and say, “What does that actually look like? How would you go about such a thing? What would a more thorough look at art across the country entail?" 

How did you go about putting such a vast undertaking together?

I sketched out a process that I thought might make sense, which as a first step involved my colleagues and I talking to our compatriots around the country who work in basically every region, community, city, and town and know something about art, whether they're curators or artists or academics—anyone who could give a lay of the land of their local scene, and a sense of the compelling artists we might not have heard of nationally but who would be interesting enough to warrant a conversation and studio visit. Then we began to tentatively trot it out, starting in Texas—a place I knew well because I started my career there and did my graduate work there—with 80 recommenders from Texas, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, Brownsville, and all those places.

The list we got was very large—people were generous and excited to share their knowledge of their local scene—so I hired a young curator, Chad Alligood, to work with me on the project, and we started pouring through them and researching what we could online. Because many of the artists obviously have websites and local representation, it gave us a glimmer of what they were up to, and from that distant research we were able to begin a process of prioritizing. 

When did you begin the search?

We did our first trial trip to Texas ill-advisably in July of last year, when it was 112 degrees. We went to I think four cities on the first trip and saw about 55 artists, in each case going to the studio with our little handheld camera and audio recorder and interviewing the artist, getting them to talk about their biography, what led them to become an artist, what their practice entails, what kind of issues they’re grappling with, and what kind of processes they’re engaged in. It turned out to be a rich experience right away for both us and the artists, and it became clear that the survey would be possible even though it was massive undertaking.

Ultimately we consulted about 700 colleagues who gave us about 8,000 names, and from that matrix we prioritized almost 1,000 artists in every region of the country who we felt we needed to see. Then we set out on the road for 9 months, traveling across America. There were some places we made repeat trips to, and some places where we didn’t make it, and we realized that this show would be the start of something rather than a finished product. And over that period we had extraordinary conversations and experiences in the studios of all types of artists, from the age of 10 to the age of 87.  

Is that true that one of the artists was 10 years old?

Yeah, we actually saw the work of a 10-year-old. 

How did he or she come to your attention? 

Well, that happened because we were planning to visit his mother, who is an artist, and while we were leaving her studio in the attic of her home she said that her 10-year-old sees himself as an artist and knew we were coming and wanted us to review his work as well. He was in school that day, but he had laid out a exhibition of his work in his bedroom, which we toured and spent time with. He later wrote us a very nice thank-you letter for coming to see his work. It was kind of extraordinary. 

Since the concept for the exhibition was to survey under-recognized artists, could you define what criteria you used to define "under-recognized"?

It evolved as we went. At first we thought we were looking for emerging artists, and although we didn’t exactly know what that meant, you kind of know it when you see it. Then we realized we were seeing artists in their 60s, 70s, 80s who had successful and satisfying careers at a university in a local community where they had support of collectors and positive critical feedback, but they had just not been recognized nationally—they had never been in a national publication or exhibition or this or that.

So we shifted from that notion of "emerging," because most artists don’t want to be called "emerging" if they've been at it for some, and we moved to a criteria of artists who had not emerged on the national scene, whatever that means, regardless of where they were in their local stature. There were a couple of times where we weren't quite sure whether an artist would fit that criteria or not, but we’d go and see them anyway and relatively quickly we’d know if the artist was too far along or too well-known for our purposes. They were always useful visits, but those artists just didn’t quite ring the bell.    

So there were minimum and maximum parameters of success for the artists? 

Yes, I would say so. But obviously we also talked about qualitative criteria as we went, and during the process of visiting these artists we found that we were very interested in artists who were deeply engaged, whether it was within their community or with the relevant issues of our time or with a specific audience, rather than artists whose work had a hermetic or retreating way of operating. We were also very interested in artists who exhibited a kind of mastery or virtuosity with respect to their chosen material. Sometimes, of course, artists were not working with material at all, so looked at whether they had wisely or strategically selected their approach to their work and maximized it in a highly skillful way.

The third criteria—and Chad and I talked about these internally but never published them anywhere or spoke to the artists about them—was a kind of generosity of spirit in regard to the viewer, with the notion that the work of art was reaching out and opening itself up to a conversation with a viewer rather than being closed in some way. So these criteria loosely guided us, but it wasn’t as if there was a strict definition that a work had to fall into.

I imagine that throughout the process you must have had the Whitney Biennial somewhere in your mind, either as a foil or a model of what had already been done when it comes to surveying American art. How did you think of your show in relation to the Biennial?         

Well, the Whitney has such a storied history, and the Biennial has been around for about 80 years, evolving constantly over the decades. I’ve been attending Biennials since the mid-'80s, and I've been able to follow its trajectory and understand what it means for its moment in time, and what it doesn’t mean too. It was definitely part of our thinking along the way, as were many other biennials and large exhibitions and ambitious projects, but not in any specific way—as a foil, like you mentioned—but just as a backdrop for what we were doing as a young museum focused on American art from the perspective of the center of the country.

We were inventing the show's identity all along the way, and in fact we were still inventing it as we were installing the show, and we’ll continue to do so now as we think about the next steps in the aftermath of the opening. There's a lot of interest both here and elsewhere in the possibility of the show traveling, or at least some components of it, and whether it might be repeated at some interval. It probably wouldn't be every two years, because it takes a year to be out on the road, but there probably is an afterlife to this first edition, and I think we’re still learning what that looks like and what it means.

One possibility that immediately pops into mind stems from a line in a Los Angeles Times article that compared you and Alligood to the latter-day Lomaxes of visual art, and it sounds as if the multimedia documentation you made of your 1,000 studio visits across the country would make a compelling analogue to the archive of American folk music that they recorded in the 1930s and '40s for the Smithsonian Institution. I also remember that at the New Museum's last Triennial, they published a catalogue that was a comprehensive encyclopedia of all the artists who had been considered for inclusion, regardless of whether they made it into the show or not. What are you planning to do with these research materials? 

I don’t know yet, but you’re absolutely right—it is an archive of this moment in contemporary practice across the country. I think there are some 1,200 hours of recorded footage from the studios of these artists, and there are certainly immediate possibilities they hold as a document of what’s currently happening in the country artistically, but also as a historical document that could be useful if you fast forward 50 years. Where else does this knowledge and information base live? But we have not yet determined what we're going to do with it, and in fact it's one of the many aspects of the project that we didn’t anticipate, but that we learned about as we went. At the very beginning when Chad and I went on that first trip to Texas, we simply thought it would be a useful mnemonic device for us to have a recording we could refer back to when culling down the artist list, knowing that after 800 or 900 visits we were going to forget some details. But we've realized that there's extraordinary value in having this recorded research. 

Having seen such a sweep of art across the country, both in cities where there are art schools and also farther-flung places that are more removed from the contemporary-art conversation, were there any common artistic strategies or themes that you started to notice repeating over and over again? 

We would ask ourselves that question frequently in different ways along the way. I would say that there were commonalities that were specific to artists in certain parts of the country, where certain aspects were emphasized or maybe over-weighted and maybe came as a little bit of a surprise. I’ll just give a couple of examples. In the Boston area, where we spent some time and visited several dozen artists, I noticed that in the conversations with the artists—but not necessarily in the work—there was a strong preponderance of intellectualizing or theorizing the work that didn’t exist in most other places. You might have an artist who spoke very theoretically or academically about the work here and there, but it wasn’t the common language in any other particular place. There it seemed to be much more pronounced, kind of like the language of that art community.  

Is that MIT’s fault? 

[Laughs] I don’t know if it’s anyone’s fault. It's certainly a heavily academic city—not that every artist we visited had anything to do with the academy. Then, in South Texas—in San Antonio and its surrounding areas—I noticed something that was quite different, which was again the way in which artists present themselves is as part of subcultural communities, with artists citing a strong political identification with the Chicano Movement or with the Gay and Lesbian Movement or this or that.

Not all of them, but many tended to define themselves by virtue of sort of the political-identity communities that they belonged to. Of course that expressed itself in individualized cases here and there elsewhere in the country, but in that community it seemed to be almost a badge of honor: “I’m a feminist.” “I’m a gay or lesbian activist.” “I’m a Chicano.” There was this kind of tribal sense that you belonged not only to that regional community, but that you belonged within that tribe. 

But then I also found it very interesting that there were other moments where we noticed commonalities that would appear simultaneously in two or three different parts of the country, in the work of two or three different artists coming from quite different trajectories and different sense of circumstances and interests but would arrive at the same object. It was a kind of synchronicity.

What kind of objects?

Well, there were several times where it happened that a painted image or sculpted object would reappear. I don’t want to overplay it, because we didn’t reveal the coincidence to the other artist because we didn’t want to say, “Do you know that there's someone 1,500 miles away who is doing exactly the same work?” Because they came in a bodies of work that were quite different, and while the physical manifestations were the same, they had different meanings. But there was a run of about six weeks or so in which we saw three different artists who had each made a bronze cast of a banana peel that was presented on the floor.

A displayed banana peel on the floor in bronze, in different contexts due to other surrounding objects… [laughs] you know, I scratched my head and asked myself, “How did this happen?” I had never seen a bronze banana peel in my life until that six-week period in which I saw three. So those kind of things were a little surprising, but maybe they were inevitable when you have tens of thousands of artists working across the country with different sets of circumstances and ideas but only so many images to communicate whatever they’re grappling with. 

Is the best banana peel in the show? 

No, none of the banana peels made it. [Laughs] Good artists nonetheless, but no.     

I suppose that's good advice for artists then: avoid the bronze banana peel.

Honestly, at first I found it a little startling that in our era of instant communication and access to all kinds of available information that these artists didn’t know that others were doing the same thing. But then you think about it with the multitude of artists who are working and the limited ways of mining all that data, and of course they wouldn’t know. I don’t assume that when an artist is making an object they Google that object to see if anyone else has made it, but the awareness within local communities is very high of what their colleagues and contemporaries are doing, while the awareness beyond their own individualized networks of what’s happening broadly was very low and surprisingly so.

But then I realized that’s partly the fault of curators, and evidence that there's an opportunity and responsibility to present more access to artists who are not household names, who are not on the covers of magazines all the time. In fact I think that’s one of the goals of our exhibition and of its aftermath, going back to the archive we gathered, because there’s such limited visibility for the breadth of what’s being created in the country despite the fact that we live in the information age. 

In terms of mediums, did you find that there were any differences that cut across generations in terms of what you were seeing, such as more of a tech- or net-based approach on the part of younger artists?

I was a curator 20 years ago, but I've been a director since, so I haven’t spent nearly as much time in studios over the past 20 years as I did this past year. So it was a bit of a surprise to me how routine and commonplace it is that, almost without exception, every artist works with digital tools now. Artist talked about sketching in any number of software programs as a completely normative exercise, even thought that practice was novel to me. They have no hesitation in talking about it as a tool, in the same way you might invoke a pencil or a brush. So in just 20 years, that's been a radical change—no artist has any compunction about using every piece technology available to him or her. 

But this process didn’t necessarily reflect itself in the finished product of the art?  

In some cases it manifests expressly, and in many, many cases not at all. It could just as easily have been a pencil that created that sketch or variation on an idea.

The museum's permanent collection is rife with work by great American artists, from Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Cole to Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe. How many artists that you selected for this show do you anticipate will find themselves in that collection after the show ends?

It’s a question we’re going to be grappling with in the next few months. When the show is up we’ll take a good, long look at the works we’ve selected, and there may be a healthy number that will enter the collection right away. We haven't made that decision yet, but my expectation is that many of these artists, given the caliber of their thinking and the future trajectory of their practice, certainly will be artists to be reckoned with, and whom we would hope to have recognized in the collection. I can’t answer at the moment, but stay tuned because I think we’ll know that pretty soon at least in a number of cases.  

Who would you say is the most established artist in the show? 

It’s kind of a hard question to answer. As I said earlier, many of the artists we’ve selected have reputations and support systems in their local region or communities, so if you ask someone in Las Vegas or Portland or wherever the artist is from they would say, “Well of course I know them! That person is a great talent and everybody knows it here.” But then, on the other side of the country, no one has ever heard of that artist. But I don’t think any of them have a hugely national visibility.

The eldest artist in the show is 87 and she’s been quite well-regarded for a number of decades, but I don’t think you’ll know her name necessarily. I encountered her work in 1988 when I was in graduate school, but never since. That's Mary Ann Currier from Louisville, Kentucky, and, you know, she had a kind of heyday in the '80s when her work resonated and was presented in New York shows and was written about, and she’s continued to work in Louisville and have some collectors and local respect. But if I told 100 of my colleagues her name, I don't think two of them would know her work.

And what about the youngest artist in the show, the 24-year-old?  

He’ll be 24 during the show—he’s 23 now [laughs]. His name is Wilmer Wilson IV and he works near Washington, D.C., and he's making a splash at a very young age both with his performance work and with sculptural installations and photographs. He has just been included in a show that Theaster Gates curated. Those things are happening for many of these artists now, and I think they will continue to happen, and that’s fantastic.  

Your co-curator, Chad Alligood, is from a younger generation than yourself—what different skill sets or perspective did he bring to the process? 

He had wonderfully different perspectives, and we had extraordinary debates and arguments about pretty much every one of the artists that we saw, which was very useful to help clarify our thinking about each work. And the generational difference was important. I don’t think I understood quite how important it would be when I hired him, but Chad was 29 when we started the project and so his body of knowledge and the era of his academic training was different, so his perspective on everything from popular culture to politics is different. So we brought very different eyes, minds, and  backgrounds to the project, and it led to some really rich debates, which is probably the best characterization. I think the choices in the exhibition are much richer for that.

And what about Alice Walton herself? Did she participate at all? 

Alice is so devoted to the idea of learning and sharing knowledge that she couldn’t help herself but want to come along on some of the studio visits, so late in the day—I think it was in April, probably eight months into our travels—she came along on one of our trips to Alabama, and after hearing reports of all of these visits we were doing and the discoveries we were making she got to experience it firsthand. She was wonderfully able to be a fly on the wall and sort of back away from the interchange that we were having with the artists and just witness it, but then after having had some of these experiences she participated in the dialogue as well, which was great because she brought her perspective and we had some really rich conversations after her visits.

It's wonderful for the chair of the board and the founder of the museum to more deeply understand the value of the experience of being in those studios and meeting these artists face to face in the place of making, instead of just viewing the art in a white-walled gallery with an art dealer and reading a press release, which is often the way in which the way things are done. So it was a really galvanizing moment for her and I think for the museum’s board, too, so I would say that helped. 

Did any of those artists make it into the show? 

One of them did, actually. Her name is Celestia Morgan, and she's a young African-American woman from Birmingham. Alice was on the studio visit with her and was very much taken by her work.

So, speaking of Alice Walton, there has been an air of eager anticipation surrounding this show since its announcement, drawing all eyes on Bentonville and helping define the museum's profile. However, in the museum's early days, much of the attention paid to the project was skeptical, in part because of the source of Walton's fortune. Also, her efforts to acquire civic treasures from public institutions, like the Thomas Eakin's The Gross Clinic from Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University and Asher B. Durand's Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library, was widely seen as bumptious. You arrived in 2009, after these headlines had faded. What has your experience of the museum's evolution been?  

Maybe the newsprint had faded, but the underpinnings of those stories were still very present when I arrived, and we grappled with that until after Crystal Bridges was open and could present itself as a museum. The skepticism lasted for quite some time, and it attended a lot of our acquisitions, and the broader curiosity about the museum was always laced with that skepticism. I kept having to talk to journalists and what the museum would be, and that I hoped they would reserve judgment until they actually saw and experienced what we were trying to accomplish here. And that happened, in fact, so after the museum opened and could stand on its own merits, people could report on what the museum actually is rather that than what their suppositions may have been, and it happily has enjoyed an extraordinary public reception as well as an extraordinary critical reception.

We’ve had a million and a half visitors to date, exceeding even our most optimistic expectations, and now that we're in our third year of operation I believe we’re perceived as a serious museum that is doing good work and has the beginnings of a fine collection, and we're educating the community broadly, from children to lifelong learners. And now, in terms of the reception of this project, I’ve frankly never had an exhibition that has received so much advance attention before opening, and that’s thrilling and I think a testament to the fact that the skeptical perception of the museum has really turned around.

Has that unease about acquisitions faded away as well?

I think so. There has certainly not been any negativity associated with our recent acquisitions. We are thoughtful and strategic, as we should be, and we operate within our budget. We do all the things that any normative museum does, so whatever precipitated that earlier comment has I think faded and we’re an operating museum just like most of our colleagues institutions are.

Considering that you had so many conversations with artists who you said were politically engaged, did the content of those earlier news stories, or the Walmart connection, ever come up?

Many of the artists we visited had either heard of the museum previously or, like any thoughtful person, had done their research after learning we were planning to come visit them, so they were curious about both the project and the museum. Then once the media stories about our project started appearing, some of those questions faded. But there were very few situations of that kind that arose—in fact I can’t think of any, other than one that I mentioned to a New York Times reporter, where an artist was hesitant to show me a piece that had a kind of critical jab at Wal-Mart among many other multinational corporations, even though there was no reason why he shouldn't show it to me, and in fact I found it very intriguing. Actually, had he been an artist who we wanted to pursue—and he was actually quite close to being in the show—we certainly would have considered that work among his many other works. But there wasn't any holdover from the earlier consternation about the museum. 

Crystal Bridges has worked with major international museums like the Louvre—is there any possibility the show might actually travel abroad, as a kind of exposition of American art?

Well, the exhibition in its entirety is probably too large and unwieldy to travel, but certainly there’s a possibility of some part of it traveling, and of course we’ve had this three-year partnership with the Louvre, the High Museum, and the Terra foundation. So the Louvre certainly is in the mix of possibilities, although the leadership of the Louvre has changed, and while Henri Loyrette, who was quite the American-o-phile, was very interested in such partnerships, that may or may not be the case going forward. But there's a great deal of interest on our part in the possibility of touring the show, so hopefully soon we’ll have a real answer to that question. 

And are there any other major curatorial initiatives that you have planned? 

Maybe not on this scale, but yes there are other initiatives that are under way that are not yet announced, and they’ll be coming down the road shortly. 

You spoke before about the perception of the museum. Now that the show has opened and the museum is gaining momentum, how do you hope it will be perceived by the wider art community in years to come? 

I think about it in two ways, and they speaks to our mission and our role here. One is that we want to be an extraordinarily good museum—a great museum for this region. There has never been a visual arts museum in this part of the country, and we have a vast and growing population in our immediate area, so already in a couple of years we have begun to be that resource for the local and regional communities. In fact, we are happily seeing repeat visitation here locally and serving the community, which we want to do on a daily basis, and to be part of those lives. But we are also becoming a destination museum, a must-see for the study and understanding of American art in the center of the country, and so we are getting lots of visits from all around the middle of the country and beyond.

So while that was not necessarily part of the plan for the museum, which was to serve this community and region, we’re delighted for the broader attention now that opinion leaders from every part of the country have visited the museum and gone back to their communities to talk about their experience, which precipitates more visitation. Hopefully that will continue and define what the museum is on both levels, as a regional resource as well as a national destination. 

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