Arts » Visual Arts

The State of Art Now in Walmartown, USA, and in Indy.

Talking with Chad Alligood about Crystal Bridges, Thinking Indy Art


Crystal Bridges Curator Chad Alligood
  • Crystal Bridges Curator Chad Alligood

On April 1 - First Friday! - I talked with Chad Alligood, the hot young curator from the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art who curated the 2014 show The State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, the museum’s largest show to date. Crystal Bridges is located in Bentonville, Arkansas, and is the brainchild of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton who also funded the museum.

Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas
  • Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas
Alligood will be speaking about his experience curating for this award-winning exhibition on Wednesday April 6, at 6 p.m. as part of the 2016 Christel DeHaan Family Foundation Visiting Artist Lecture series in the Basile Auditorium of the Herron School of Art and Design.

The curating for this particular exhibition was a bit unusual, perhaps unprecendented. Driving around the country with Crystal Bridges’ former president Don Bacigalupi, he visited 1,000 artists’ studios, logging 100,000 miles. They culled their selections down to works by 102 artists. The exhibit ran from Sept. 14, 2014 – Jan.19, 2015 and drew in 170,000 visitors.

The place I parked myself to talk with Alligood—by phone—was Gallery 924 at the Arts Council, located at 924 Pennsylvania St. I wanted to kill two birds with one stone: I also wanted to catch a preview of Shawn Causey and Mark Daniell’s “Sweet Spot” exhibition, opening that evening, but when I walked into the door at 2:00 pm they were not yet ready for the opening at 6 p.m. They were working hard putting together their sculptures consisting of seven-miles-worth of nylon cords of different colors—3,750 of them altogether—stretched taut from floor to ceiling, and it looked like it was all coming together nicely.

"Sweet Spot" by Shawn Causey and Mark Daniell at Gallery 924 - DAN GROSSMAN
  • Dan Grossman
  • "Sweet Spot" by Shawn Causey and Mark Daniell at Gallery 924

I parked myself there thinking that there wasn’t any perch better than this to talk with Alligood. After all, both the Arts Council of Indianapolis and Crystal Bridges Museum of Art are both involved in community building through art, although the means in which they do so vary considerably.

So what is the State of American Art Now? (Is it even possible to come up with an answer to such a broad question?) And does Alligood’s experience have any bearing on the arts scene in Indiana? One question I asked him might have touched on an answer, at least tangentially.

I asked Alligood if the thinking behind this particular exhibition was akin to that of the American Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton—the artist who painted the Indiana Murals, visible on the IU Bloomington campus—who posed a challenge to New York dominance of the art world in the 1930s.

“I think it’s rooted in a similar ideology of understanding that America is broad and deep in respect to its visual culture but here’s how it’s different,” he told me. “The term “Regionalist” has been applied to those artists and it still retains the air of an epithet; something that is derogatory… And here I think … we can take a page from the contemporary locavore movement which finds its power in the term local as a sign of prestige and exclusivity as opposed to regional which is seen as somehow lesser than the mainstream. So if we can flip the script in the art world and understand the local as a legitimate and powerful place from which you can watch an important and vital critique and way of working we’d all be better off and the exhibition bears that out.”

One of Alligood’s eureka moments occurred in a city not particularly recognized for its contemporary art scene: Las Vegas. This particular discover was Justin Favela’s “Lowrider Piñata.”
Justin Favela's "Lowrider Piñata"
  • Justin Favela's "Lowrider Piñata"

“As I found again and again, those places that you would think last to look are actually the places that are ripe for discovery,” said Alligood. “I showed up at Justin Favela’s studio which was really his family members’ garage. He put up his garage door and said ‘Come on in’ and there was this giant paper mache turkey in the room. I thought, ‘What’s going on here.’ And he proceeded to talk about the integration of the texture of his Chicano background into his sculptural practice both within this sort of pictorial trope. That particular installation was about sharing meals at particular times of the year. 'Lowrider Piñata' was a way of nodding to his background. His uncle loved to soup up a 55 Chevy Impala. These are tropes that ran very deep for him but emanated immediately from his choice of subject and his choice of material.”

Alligood passed through Indianapolis on his journey, and I asked him to paint his impressions for me with broad strokes:

“You have a vital scene there that is anchored by a couple of really well respected institutions in the field,” he said. “And then of course a bubbling up of new practices from very well respected schools and of course the contemporary scene laid on top of that. So I think it’s the kind of hothouse environment that can really create interesting work. And I’m excited to do some studio visits while I’m there.”

Alligood didn’t select any Indianapolis artists for “Discovering American Art Now.” The one Indiana artist that he did select, Taiwan-born Jawshing Arthur Liou, based in Bloomington, wasn’t exactly making an art that could easily be labelled "local" or "locavore."    

Liou’s video “Kora” documents his pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash in Tibet, a mountain sacred in four world religions using an ultra-high definition 4K camera. This pilgrimage, and the powerful, meditative art that resulted from it, were a response to the death of his daughter Vivian in 2007 from Leukemia. 
"Kora" by Jawshing Arthur Liou
  • "Kora" by Jawshing Arthur Liou

This just might demonstrate that the term ‘local,” in this globally interconnected age, is one with a certain amount of elasticity.

Certainly Bentonville is plugged into the global economy. In addition to being the home of Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, it’s also the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Says Alligood, Crystal Bridges has brought positive change to Bentonville since it first opened in 2011.

“A lot of places had a bygone era... Boomtown days,” said Alligood. “In northwest Arkansas the heyday is now. A lot of the energy has come from Crystal Bridges; and its location in downtown, a return to local sources of pride: people are starting to move downtown again. There’s a very visible and active downtown scene. It has changed. The average age of folks in northwest Arkansas is something like four years lower than the national average. There’s a booming millennial population. And one of the outgrowths of State of the Art, we recently announced the revitalization of a former Kraft cheese facility into a space for contemporary art. And that’s a direct outgrowth to the energy and interest in State of the Art.”

And since Crystal Bridges wouldn’t have been possible without Wal-Mart money, I asked Alligood if the question of Wal-Mart funding ever came up in the minds of the artists he dealt with.

“I’m sure that it must have but it was only expressed to me once in the process of a thousand studio visits,” he said. “Of course in the installation and once we got to know the artists who we selected, we had more expansive conversations about where arts philanthropy is in this country and how philanthropists [and] large multinational corporations really have to take responsibility, right? To take a real leading role in support of art in this country. And on that score, I think the Waltons are putting their money where their mouth is. I can’t speak for the artists involved, but all the feedback that I’ve been receiving has been enormously positive. They’ve been treated very well by us and I take pride in that.”

I kept this “locavore” neologism in my head as I made the rounds this First Friday. And when I bumped into Joanna Beatty Taft, the Executive Director of the Harrison Center for the Arts, and asked her if she was a locavoire. She answered in the affirmative.

We were at the Harrison Gallery, during the opening of Caleb Stoltzfus’s show of biblically-themed paintings entitled “Prophets.”

Just about every month at the Harrison Center for the Arts, their four or so galleries display work by artists who are mostly (but not exclusively local). Quite frankly, for an arts writer, there’s almost too much going on in that bursting-at-the-seams venue to handle but it’s important to mention the important things going on there. One of the most remarkable developments in the Harrison's history is the recent opening of their City Gallery. Here's a description of this art-meets-community-building space, taken from its website: 

The City Gallery is the newest program of the Harrison Center. We’re using arts & culture to tell the story of Indy’s urban neighborhoods. Through our growing grassroots networks, we’re connecting people to housing opportunities, whether to buy or to rent, affordable or market-rate, ASAP or a few years down the road. The City Gallery can introduce you to incredible deals and friendly neighbors. Over a cup of coffee (on us!), meet our knowledgeable partners, including community developers, financial advisors, and realtors, who can guide you through the home-finding process.

Off the beaten path at the Harrison is a gallery space mostly overlooked by the maddening crowds on First Fridays: Hank & Dolly’s Gallery. This month a show entitled “Portraits,” curated by Harrison Center artist Nathan Foxton who has been amassing an extraordinarily varied body of work including a self-portrait in this show. Last month in the City Gallery he had a solo show entitled “IN Color” that was an extraordinarily colorful and painterly vision of various Indy cityscapes including a depiction of the Indiana War Memorial. Foxton is inspiring to me as a writer and inspiring to his fellow artists for his passion as a painter.

But this month he was content to be just one of a number of local artists showing off their extraordinary talent for portraiture and not all of it traditional. Take, for example, the 3D printed “Patriot,” a sculptural head form with a tricorne hat. The work bears a suspicious likeness to its creator, artist David Hicks. He's better known for his huge mixed-media paintings that look like the work of an apocalyptic, prophetic (and extremely talented) WPA muralist.

"Patriot" by David Hicks
  • "Patriot" by David Hicks
I’ve talked in my reviews and features about how the Harrison Center “locavore” artists influence one another and how vital the Harrison Center is as an arts institution and for community-building, embodied in the Harrison's push to improve neighborhoods downtown and, much more informally, in the frequent porch parties hosted by Harrison Center curator Kyle Ragsdale.

I've also talked in a tongue and cheek way about how the front porch should be the new covered bridge as a subject of painting in the Hoosier state, since porch parties are so often a subject of his - and other Harrison Center artists' - paintings. But it's no joke. Their passion for both art and community-building is real, and they live it.     

But the Harrison is just one of a bunch of non-profit and community-based organizations that are making Indianapolis a better place to live along with Big Car, Primary Colours, the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers’ Association, the Arts Council of Indianapolis, and the Stutz Artists Association. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.   

Indy is not Bentonville, Arkansas—or for that matter, Carmel, IN - in the sense that there is not so much in the way of top-down community curating going on in the Circle City. (Despite Mayor Brainard’s efforts in creating an Arts & Design District imbued with a certain French Fin de siècle ambiance in the old downtown, the arts haven't entirely taken off in Carmel).

In Indianapolis, much of the movement is from the bottom up, not top down. I think that is why there have been so many successes in this regard in the last decade. (The "social practice art" of Big Car Collective - particularly their use of art and creativity to improve Indy's under-resourced neighborhoods, is an important part of this movement.) And I think that anyone looking to find the state of American art now - if they had to make a choice between Bentonville, AR. and Indianapolis - should choose Indianapolis.

Hell, at least on this particular April First Friday when there were too many exhibitions taking place to get a grip on.

Just in Fountain Square's Murphy Building, you had the phenomenal “Color Meditations” show by James Wille Faust in iMOCA (the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art) on the first floor.
"Apparition" by James Wille Faust
  • "Apparition" by James Wille Faust

On the second floor, in the Primary Colours space - Primary Gallery - Emily Gable was having a solo show entitled "She's a Mean Breed," displaying engaging, playful paintings that come might come across like a mishmash of Saturday morning cartoons and Roy Lichtenstein.

Gable is also a member of the Droops, a group of six young artists whose next project will be working with kids from Arlington High School on a mural on Indy’s east side (exact location yet to be determined).

Back in November, 2015 the Droops ran into some controversy when they painted a mural on the exterior wall of The Spot Tavern in Lafayette, IN. In the mural you the head of a bearded football player, a guillotine, a neon sight that reads “Party on,” and a piece of meat in a hot dog bun that looked suspiciously like a penis to some locals. (The bar owner covered up the offending artwork with a depiction of Governor Mike Pence.)

When I caught up with Gable on Friday, at her solo show, I asked her about the controversy surrounding the artwork, the kind of art that would probably never be allowed on the exterior wall of any Wal-Mart anywhere.

Emily Gable with her art
  • Emily Gable with her art

“There was the best of both worlds,” Gable told me. “I like the negative as well as the positive. Especially the owner of the bar. That was him [who covered up the offending penis with a portrait of Pence]. But we were fine with it. While we were painting that mural we had residents who were living around that area coming up to us. An old guy [said] 'Wow, I love what you guys are doing. This is awesome. I’ve lived here 35 years, this is really cool to see in my neighborhood.' It was really cool to hear that from a really super old guy who was walking with a cane.”  


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