Read the “About” page for the State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now website and you can practically hear the movie-trailer voiceover: “The ultimate road trip, to a thousand destinations, for one unforgettable exhibition.”
So what kind of movie would State of the Art be? A buddy comedy, maybe, in which two curators, Don Bacigalupi and Chad Alligood, take to the road, traveling more than 100,000 miles in nine months to visit nearly 1,000 artists. Or a horror film, with our brave curators encountering a coffin-shaped sculpture in a dark basement studio, as Randy Kennedy described in The New York Times.
Mostly, though, State of the Art is an underdog story, one where lovable losers play by their own rules, we root for them, and they come out on top.
Yet neither “underdog” nor “loser” is a word that leaps to mind when it comes to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Founded by Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton in 2011, Crystal Bridges organized State of the Art with a $4 million budget. Reviews of this ambitious survey of contemporary American art have been mixed, with critiques focusing at least as much on the museum’s financial backing and its relatively rural Ozarks location as the exhibition’s content. In his Wall Street Journal review, Peter Plagens described State of the Art as “a meticulously installed, technically impressive exhibition” that looked like “the world’s largest university faculty show.” If a different institution had mounted a similar exhibition, matters of site and funding would probably not figure so heavily in media coverage. No one talks about the Whitney Biennial in the context of its urban setting.
Crystal Bridges’ own interpretive and marketing materials emphasize the backstory of what it took to place State of the Art on the map. Curators focused their search on what they called “under-recognized artists,” which, in an interview with Andrew M. Goldstein on artspace.com, Bacigalupi defined as those “[artists] who had not emerged on the national scene, whatever that means, regardless of where they were in their local stature.” Ultimately, Bacigalupi and Alligood narrowed a list of 10,000 suggested artists to 102, split almost evenly among four somewhat arbitrarily demarcated sections of the contiguous United States. For their purposes, Northeast Ohio fell within the boundaries of the Midwest; other regions were west, south and northeast.
The result is an exhibition that privileges breadth over depth, and it requires a feat of museum-going stamina to absorb. Crystal Bridges has crammed more than 200 artworks into galleries on opposite sides of the museum; a few select works appear outside. When I visited in late November, Cleveland artist Jimmy Kuehnle’s Amphibious Inflatable Suit, primarily a warm weather creature prone to wild dancing and initially installed in the pond at the museum’s center, was already hibernating.
Early on inside the galleries, groupings seem conceptually or aesthetically planned. The first two works that visitors encounter, Minneapolis artist Andy DuCett’s Mom Booth—staffed with real-life mothers—and Brooklyn artist Jeila Gueramian’s crocheted hallway installation It’s You, start the exhibition with the visual-art equivalent of a hug. Other well-thought-out pairings appear throughout the first half, including Chicago artist Alison Ruttan’s clay re-creations of bombed-out buildings in the Middle East, which are displayed directly across from Baltimore-based Mequitta Ahuja’s Foro Romano, a drawing of a kneeling woman assembling a city from bits and pieces of ruined structures. By contrast, the second half of the exhibition, where Cleveland artist Kristen Cliffel’s whimsical, pop-culture-inspired ceramic sculptures are displayed, seems unfortunately rushed, like leftovers thrown together.
Efforts to make thematic connections–including Jenny Holzer-like truisms applied in vinyl on the gallery walls—“The stuff of daily life can reveal hidden stories” … “Personal stories open avenues for empathy”—come across as afterthoughts. And there’s no attempt to convey any perspective on what exactly is going on in American art today. Beyond references to variety—diversity of materials, scale, subject matter, and geographic location of the artists—this incredible missed opportunity glares.
Yet the actual work on display in State of the Art seems at times a bit beside the point. The arduous travel involved in the selection process, the sheer mileage that went into curators’ search for these featured artists, usurps thematic continuity or artistic connection as this exhibition’s primary narrative. For a nationwide group show in the small city of Bentonville, Arkansas, location is key. State of the Art means to demonstrate that art is being made and appreciated throughout the country, and to do so in a way that isn’t in opposition to the coasts. But Bentonville is neither New York nor Los Angeles; it’s the center of the country—though the majority of the artists whose work is on display in State of the Art, who live outside areas well trod by curators assembling contemporary art surveys, can still be understood as geographic underdogs.
If we consider this exhibition as an indication that the art world is indeed decentralized, as those of us in the center of the country have been hearing for years, does it mean the art world is also becoming more equitable? Does geographic equity come with a shift in power, a call to rethink which art is worth displaying, interpreting and caring for, and who makes those decisions? For this exhibition in the center of the country, Bacigalupi and Alligood made viewers central to that process. Bacigalupi explained this in his interview with artspace.com: “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.”
State of the Art transfers power, love and attention to the underdogs, the less-known artists working outside of art-world centers, and to a historically underserved visual-art audience. Before the establishment of Crystal Bridges, residents of northwest Arkansas had to drive hours to Tulsa or Kansas City to see a major collection. Does that alone make it a high-quality exhibition? No—but it suggests that such judgments aren’t necessarily up to art critics.
Theresa Bembnister is associate curator at the Akron Art Museum. Her art writing has appeared in Cleveland’s Scene, Kansas City’s Pitch, the Kansas City Star, and Glasstire.com. View more articles by Theresa Bembnister.