New Frontier at Tippet Rise Art Center: Access for All

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Tippet Rise Art Center, a sculpture park and music venue that opened in the summer of 2016, just may exemplify an embryonic movement in arts philanthropy. Located outside Fishtail, MT, (population either 65 or 480, depending on which source you credit), Tippet Rise provides high culture to a high-country area known more for white-water rafting than art-gallery hopping. In a time of political, social and cultural polarization between urban and hinterland regions, coastal and interior areas, blue and red states, is it possible providing first-hand cultural experiences is a first step towards a more harmonious union?

More focused on building community than dazzling structures.

That’s not to say the Edifice Complex is over. In the two decades since Frank Gehry’s extravagant Guggenheim Museum converted the rusty, post-industrial city of Bilbao, Spain, into a hip destination for cultural tourists, patrons have continued to build attention-grabbing monuments that showcase ego as much as art. Yet perhaps a counter-trend is shaping up. Some philanthropists with an arts-activist bent are picking sites outside metropolises to host programs that offer transformative experiences. These benefactors are more focused on building community than dazzling structures. They employ an irresistible combo of art and nature to reshape the cultural landscape and connect with a public underserved by big-city institutions.

In our Gilded Age of income inequality, super-rich art collectors seem keen to set up private museums. A few examples are Los Angeles’s Broad Museum, Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland, Miami’s Rubell Family Collection and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Cynics might wonder if establishing a museum benefits collectors as much as — or more than — the public. Some founders enjoy the prestige of showing off acquisitions. Others might benefit from increased property value in a newly gentrified area, and still others could pocket a tax deduction. Nevertheless, it appears the approach of some founders of new institutions is more missionary than mercenary. Expanding access to art through non-profit centers will, these philanthropists hope, educate and engage the public and improve quality of life.

Tippet Rise Calder
Alexander Calder, Two Discs, 1965. Installed at Tippet Rise Art Center, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Exhibit A is this new cultural destination in rural Montana. The founders of Tippet Rise, Cathy and Peter Halstead, hope it will be as successful as Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas and Donald Judd’s Marfa in the Texas desert in drawing art lovers to an off-the-beaten track location. Their project offers stunning contemporary sculpture and Carnegie Hall-worthy classical music performances. Located on an 10,260-acre sheep and cattle ranch, it’s the largest sculpture park (in terms of area) in the world — a vast, eight-by-eight-mile area comprising twelve former ranches.

Recognition has already started rolling in. Tippet Rise won the 2017 Leading Cultural Destination Award, called the Oscars for museums, as the Best New Museum of the Year in North America. The judges chose it for its quality, contribution to cultural vitality and visionary approach. In terms of community-building and cultural enrichment, outreach so far includes interns from local colleges, school students’ visits and an on-site course in collaboration with Montana State University. In 2017 the sculptor Mark di Suvero offered summer workshops to local Boys and Girls Club members, and Tippet Rise sponsors art lessons for inmates of Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.

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In the past, the founders Cathy Halstead, an abstract painter, and her husband Peter, pianist, poet and photographer, focused their largess on music institutions. Cathy inherited control of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, named for her deceased father, called “the booze-baron billionaire” after he made a fortune on Grey Goose vodka. Peter is an adventurer who once had a helicopter airlift a 1000-pound Steinway grand piano to an outcrop in the Alaska mountains where he performed a Strauss concerto sitting on a fake boulder, dressed in a furry suit like like an abominable snowman.

Mark di Suvero Tippet Rise
Mark di Suvero, Proverb, 2002. The monumental sculpture is 60 feet high.

As quirky as that sounds, the two are serious about this venture. Inspired by sculpture parks like Storm King in Mountain View, NY, they commissioned avant-garde sculptors to create hybrid, site-specific works to adorn the Montana landscape. Visitors traverse the miles separating each work to view the pieces in canyons and creek beds. The new pieces fall under the category of environmental land art, while two Mark di Suvero steel abstract works pay homage to Peter’s love of music: Beethoven’s Quartet (intended to be hammered to produce sound) and Proverb, shaped like a metronome with a swinging pendulum. The Hirshhorn Museum loaned some Alexander Calder sculptures: a stabile and a mobile.

Patrick Dougherty Tippet Rise
Patrick Dougherty Daydreams, 2015. Photo: Djuna Zupanic.

One of the new commissions by Patrick Dougherty, known for his monumental environmental works, is called Daydreams. A replica of an old prairie schoolhouse, it’s surrounded by woven willow saplings collected on site. Stephen Talasnik constructed a mélange of wooden beams reminiscent of basketry and beaver dams. The experimental Madrid duo Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa (collectively called Ensamble Studio) built steel-reinforced concrete structures cast from molds dug into the earth, then tilted up, like Stone Age cromlechs, to frame the dramatic landscape. Beartooth Portal is 26 feet tall: two rock-like forms that lean together at the top. Domo is a 90-foot-long, 16-foot-tall cave-like protrusion from the earth that doubles as a performance venue.

The ambitious goal of this new art center is to create a haven that transcends boundaries between art, architecture, nature and music. Rest assured that everything is ecologically correct, with solar panels for power and lighting, geothermal energy for heating and cooling and net-zero energy consumption. Whether it will change the art culture and environmental awareness of rural Montana remains to be seen, but it does exemplify the trends towards activist art patrons and spreading access to culture to peripheral sites.

Ensamble Studio Tippet Rise
Ensamble Studio, Inverted Portal, 2015. Image courtesy of Tippet Rise.

Tippet Rise takes art not just out of a city, suburban town or rural village but to Montana’s remote foothills. Its website conjures a day in the country, with soothing video of grazing sheep and audio of birds warbling. In a classic instance of Field of Dreams optimism, the founders transformed rolling rye-and-sage grasslands into a no-expense-spared, drop-dead gorgeous destination for lovers of music, art and nature in the raw.

The massive, architectonic works of land art intentionally frame views of the Beartooth Mountains, resonating with the landscape rather than dominating it. The modest buildings constructed have a purposely rustic, Old West vibe, including an acoustically perfect, mortise-and-tenon “music barn” made of native larch, designed by Wyoming architects Gunnstock Timber Frame. Asked if Tippet Rise was an anti-Bilbao gesture, Alban Bassuet, in charge of Lead Design and Planning, responded in a 2016 interview, “You said it, not me — but I agree. We wanted no hierarchy between architecture and the land and equal footing between the art, nature and architecture.”

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When the Halsteads first formed their concept of uniting the dynamic duo of art and nature, they did interview architects known for show-stopping works, who sketched some potential designs. “We did consider having a signature architect,” Peter admitted in a interview at Tippet Rise, adding, “but it was too egotistical; it wasn’t humble.” Cathy concurred, saying, “It didn’t fit the land.”

A place for art, nature, music and adventure.

Why create an arts center in what even Montanans admit is the middle of nowhere? “We love isolation and the wilderness,” Peter — a former mountain climber — said. “We wanted a place,” he added, “where people can be alone with nature and the sculpture.” Attracting massive numbers of tourists is anathema here; a contemplative experience is the object.

Cathy Halstead recalled a consciousness-raising experience when she and Peter visited Storm King Art Center: “It completely changed our lives.” That aesthetic awakening, which Peter described as “being alone with something astonishing, this amazing sense of communion,” was their motivation to give others a similar mind-altering jolt.

Response from the local community has been gratifying. Although getting there involves a bone-rattling slog over washboard-rough gravel roads, the summer concert series, in its first and second seasons, sold out — mostly to people from Billings about 70 miles away (population 100,000) and surrounding rural hamlets. Two-hour tours by electric van of the sculptures for a maximum of one hundred visitors a day also sell out. “People who come are bowled over, saying, ‘I didn’t know that was sculpture’,” Peter said. “Their eyes are opened, and they’re converts.”

Cathy said they didn’t intend to create a destination so much as a place of incredible beauty, but for Peter, “the idea that you have to be really committed to go” is a plus. “It’s a real adventure when you go there,” he began, while Cathy finished his sentence: “And the adventure continues when you get here.”

Peter and Cathy Halstead, Tippet Rise
Peter and Cathy Halstead, creators of Tippet Rise Art Center near Fishtail, MT.

Whether their venture will reshape the cultural landscape of an area known mainly for trout fishing is unclear. The famed pianist Stephen Hough performed a Schubert sonata for a wildly appreciative, capacity audience of 150 people in 2016, but such limited access hardly heralds broad cultural awakening. Berit Ashla, vice president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors who worked with the Halsteads on Tippet Rise, defended the project in a phone interview: “The Halsteads are generating culture that is moving hearts and minds. It’s not limited to the elite at all.”

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Ashla described the Halsteads as “having been so profoundly moved and genuinely transformed by artistic and musical experiences that they believe in the power of that kind of experience to lead to transformational thinking. This is absolutely about creating a powerful public asset to provide that.” She added, “We’re only limited by our imagination and what is made accessible to us. Tippet Rise is unlocking all kinds of new possibilities for the school kids who come to visit.” The potential catchment area of those they hope to inspire includes not just rural residents nearby but travelers from all over Montana, visitors to Yellowstone National Park (two hours away) and hardy culture-seekers stirred to make the trek.

At least for one resident, David Oltrogge, a music lover who’s lived in Absarrokee, Montana for 63 years, Tippet Rise “has given the area an infusion of spirit and pride,” he wrote in a local editorial. He praised the philanthropists, who combine “a rare synergy of great vision meeting great means.”

But the question remains: can art overcome differences and bring us together? My next column will look at other attempts by art philanthropists to accomplish this elusive goal.