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story.lead_photo.caption Drew Divilbiss (left) and Michael Derian move a piece of art Wednesday at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Several works that have been on the road at other museums are now back at Crystal Bridges. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was in a festive mood when the artwork from its first traveling exhibition returned to Bentonville last month.

It had been roughly two years since the contemporary art pieces collected as part of the museum's "State of the Art" exhibit had departed on a national tour. After being divided into two versions and displayed in five venues throughout 2016 and 2017, the collection was back where it began.

"It was like Christmas to see those works again," assistant curator Alejo Benedetti said.

Museum visitors will get the opportunity to celebrate the return as well, as Crystal Bridges reintroduces some of the art from the "State of the Art" exhibition that first appeared at the museum over a four-month span beginning in September 2014.

A handful of "State of the Art" pieces have been installed in the museum's "1940s to Now" galleries, and others will be on display as part of a focused exhibition called "All or Nothing," which opens today. The exhibition is free.

Some of the artwork that was part of "State of the Art" never left Crystal Bridges, including Gabriel Dawe's thread installation Plexus No. 27 and Kim Dickey's ceramic sculpture Mille-fleur. But others like Vanessa German's power figures, Mary Ann Currier's Ruminations on the Right Angle and Jimmy Baker's Arrangements 1-4 have been installed for the first time since the "State of the Art" run.

They're reminders of what Benedetti described as an "incredibly important" project for Crystal Bridges, marking its first full-scale dive into a contemporary art exhibition.

"It was a novel idea in the sense that we set out with this mindset that great art is happening not just in sort of major art hubs in New York City and L.A., but all over the country," Benedetti said. "When you pull together a show like 'State of the Art,' when you see the quality of the work and the quality of ideas that were on display, the art world took notice."

Crystal Bridges unveiled its plan for what would become "State of the Art" four years ago today, marking the second anniversary of the museum opening to the public.

Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood would embark on what Alligood remembered this week as the "road trip of a lifetime," traveling across the country in search of artists working in new and imaginative ways. They searched in big cities. They stopped in small towns. The Crystal Bridges team -- which also included founder Alice Walton -- logged a combined 100,000 miles and visited 1,000 studios over a nine-month span.

The travels produced "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now," a large-scale exhibition featuring 227 contemporary artworks by 102 artists. It included four artists from Arkansas: Guy Bell and Delita Martin of Little Rock, Linda Lopez of Fayetteville and John Salvest of Jonesboro.

"For about a year Don and I had the best overarching view of what art looks like at that moment," said Alligood, who is now chief curator of American art at the Huntington Library in California. "It was taking the pulse of not only artists, but the culture at large because artists often serve as the conduit through which we understand our culture. Going to San Antonio, Omaha, Pittsburgh, places with active and vibrant communities, we were able to see a snapshot of our culture at large. It was magical."

"State of the Art" opened at Crystal Bridges in September 2014 and was a success over its four-month run, setting the museum's exhibition attendance record with 175,000 visitors.

Crystal Bridges imagined what the response would be on a wider scale and considered taking the exhibition on the road. Alligood said it began with a simple question to colleagues at other institutions: Would they be interested in a exhibition featuring contemporary art?

"We didn't know if there would be interest," Alligood said. "It turned out, there was great interest."

The museum prepared two smaller versions of the exhibition to travel to five locations over the next two years. In that time, "State of the Art" was on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minneapolis; Telfair Museums in Savannah, Ga.; Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis; The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C.; and The Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville.

Crystal Bridges Executive Director Rod Bigelow said in a prepared statement that more than 350,000 visitors have viewed "State of the Art" since its debut in Bentonville and the exhibition has increased "awareness for contemporary artists working all over the country." Bigelow said the featured artists have also "deeply engaged visitors with works that examine issues related to the environment, economy or community."

Mark Scala, chief curator for The Frist, said roughly 62,000 guests visited "State of the Art" during a summer show in Nashville. The museum had about 72 "State of the Art "works on display, and Scala said Crystal Bridges' ambitious project seemed to resonate with guests, many of whom didn't think they liked or understood contemporary art.

He credited the museum for being able to discover the "art of this moment."

"I think it's very easy to go to New York and see who is having a good career," Scala said. "It's not easy to do what they did, to really dig and look under the stones and behind the bushes. The service that is offered then to artists, the opportunity for exposure, and then also the recognition that you can be an artist working in Des Moines or Spokane or Santa Fe and still have a meaningful, wonderful and significant career ... there's a value to that."

Alligood is hopeful one of the outcomes of the project is an increased awareness of contemporary artists, pointing to Dawe and German as examples of those who have won awards or were featured in other significant shows since "State of the Art." Sculptor John Douglas Powers, another artist featured in the exhibition, was the 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.

"These artists would've continued to work and they would've continued to receive the accolades they did because their work is amazing," Alligood said. "I'm just fortunate I got to work with them at that moment. We visited with them in 2013, and we got to be a part of their story."

The next chapter for some of the work produced by those artists is now on view at Crystal Bridges.

The museum is eager for the opportunity to tell new stories by pairing some "State of the Art" works with other elements of the permanent collection, according to Benedetti. One example: German's power figures are now alongside Kerry James Marshall's 1995 painting, Our Town, in the gallery.

Celestia Morgan, Angela Drakeford, Peter Glenn Oakley and Watie White are other "State of the Art" artists whose work will appear in "All or Nothing," which examines how artists use black and white. Benedetti said the museum is having conversations about including other recently returned "State of the Art" works for future shows as well.

"'State of the Art' was a radical experiment, and it entirely confirmed everything we had thought," Benedetti said. "Great art is happening all over, and here's the proof. ... Contemporary art isn't this strange offshoot of American art. It's the continuation of an American story, and we want to put that on display."

Photo by Flip Putthoff
Michael Derian (left) and Drew Divilbiss hang artwork earlier this week at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Metro on 11/11/2017

Print Headline: Art exhibition returns after 2 years of travel

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