ACCORDING TO a 2014 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, there are over two million working artists in America. That means there are more artists at work today than ever before.
So why are so many museums and galleries showing the same work from the same people over and over again?
Where the hell are all the artists?!
That’s what Chad Alligood, a curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, AR, and Don Bacigalupi, PhD, former president of Crystal Bridges Museum, set out to find. For one year, Alligood and Bacigalupi spent five days a week traveling the United States, visiting artists’ studios wherever they could be found to get a better understanding of what’s being created in America today.
They traveled over 100,000 miles, visited 900 artists (5-12 artists per day) and chose 102 to exhibit in State of the Art: Discovering America Now.
The exhibition opened in the fall of 2014 at Crystal Bridges and now a part of it (works from 40 of the participating artists) will go on view at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts.
State of the Art opens on Thursday, February 18 at the Jepson Center with a lecture by Susie J. Lee at 6pm and a reception from 7 - 9pm.
So what did Alligood and Bacigalupi find?
Hidden away in the deep pockets of metropolitan areas, small towns, suburbs and America’s rural backcountry are the artists whose work you might never see. They’re working in tiny, unventilated studios in converted industrial buildings and out of their garages. They’re in their bedrooms, in church basements, in barns somewhere far off the grid.
For many of the artists Alligood and Bacigalupi visited, it was their first studio visit ever.
Artists are out there making and creating, many of them eager to share and talk about their work, but very few are ever able to break into the high stakes art industry.
Jonathan Schipper, the artist behind State of the Art’s “Slow Room” (an installation of a living room which is pulled, centimeter by centimeter, through a small hole in the gallery wall), explained it like this:
“We get so focused on just a few artists. It’s exactly the same as famous actors. Tom Cruise is a perfectly fine actor, but he’s not the best actor; he’s the best paid actor and he’s the best known actor,” Schipper says.
“But there are a lot of great actors out there who are just as competent as he is but they don’t get the chance [to show it]. The industry is so built around fame and ego and all those things.”
State of the Art’s entire mission is to shatter that trope.
“With this exhibition, we wanted to show the many ways that artists are working and the many mediums they’re working in,” Rachel Reese, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at Telfair Museums, explains. “You’ll see a wide range of subject matter and interests, but all [the pieces] reflect the communities where the artists are working.”
“It’s a way to communicate what’s relevant today in America,” she continued. “Art is a communication tool and it’s reflective of the time and place in which it was made. Hopefully this exhibition is wide-reaching enough that there’s something everybody can connect with.”
With roughly 5,000 square feet of gallery space dedicated to the exhibit and pieces in nearly every medium imaginable, visitors who can’t find something to talk about simply aren’t trying hard enough.
In any other exhibition, Schipper’s incredible “Slow Room” might have stolen the show – but it’s not the case here. State of the Art’s other heavy hitters include a large kinetic sculpture by Knoxville, TN artist John Douglas Powers (“Ialu”), a wonderfully surreal video installation by Minneapolis, MN artist Chris Larson (“Heavy Rotation”), and seductively dangerous sculptures made from razor sharp pearl-tipped corsage pins (“Seer Bonnets”) by Phoenix, AZ artist Angela Ellsworth.
Focused on relevancy and dealing with topical subject matter, State of the Art doesn’t shy away from political and social commentary either.
Kirk Crippens’ “Foreclosure, USA” photo series depicts the bleakness of the 2008 financial crisis through its images of abandoned, foreclosed California suburbia; Susie J. Lee’s “Fracking Fields” forces viewers to get up close and personal with three employees of North Dakota’s fracking industry; and Vanessa German (who will give a lecture on March 31 at 6pm) exhibits her sculpted “power figures,” created from found-objects to help empower the underserved children in her dangerous Pittsburgh, PA neighborhood.
All of the works were created in the last decade by artists who are all living today, which has provided a rare opportunity for the Jepson Center to gather many of the participating artists for the opening reception.
At the time of publication fifteen artists have agreed to attend and will mingle in the gallery, making themselves available for questions (or even accolades).
What kind of art world would we have if we actively tried to include more artists in it? State of the Art finally gives us something to aspire to.