How Out-of-the-Way Arts Institutions Build Community

Crystal Bridges and Grace Farms are expanding access to culture, thought, justice and nature.

Aerial view of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Architecture by Moshe Safdie.

This is the second of a two-part series on arts-activist philanthropy with the focus on expanding access to culture for the benefit of society. Part one is here: New Frontier at Tippet Rise Art Center: Access for All

Both social-practice art that addresses communal needs and “creative place-making” (using art as a catalyst to enhance quality of life) have been on growth spurts recently. Some arts institutions also embrace the twin goals of actively engaging and uniting a broad spectrum of the public. Two relatively new nonprofit cultural organizations — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Grace Farms Foundation — diverge from the traditional model of museums where viewers passively “appreciate” art. Instead, their mission is to welcome all and build community by providing access to new ideas and to energizing, participatory experiences. Going beyond aesthetic delight, the ultimate goal is to activate visitors’ minds.

Crystal Clear

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, AR, founded in 2011, is an early prototype of this budding philanthropic movement to expand access to fine art. When Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, announced her plan to acquire masterpieces of American art and build a nonprofit museum in a culturally-underserved area in the Ozarks, people asked, “Why there?” Her response: “Why not?”

Alice Walton, founder of Crystal Bridges - Grace Farms
Alice Walton, founder of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Why not, indeed. In its first six years, the museum attracted more than twice the number of anticipated visitors — more than 3.4 million, from all 50 states and six continents. “The museum was founded on the idea of creating access to cultural experience,” according to Crystal Bridges’ executive director Rod Bigelow. Its mandate: not to appeal primarily to elite connoisseurs but to be all-inclusive. “We’re proud that a broad community has come to embrace the museum experience,” Bigelow said in a phone interview. Fifty percent of visitors are first-timers, and for many it’s their first visit to any museum. Most attendees come from Arkansas and surrounding states, those for whom access to a world-class collection of art was not possible before.

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Converting what used to be fly-over territory in the American heartland to a desirable stop-over spot was a gutsy gamble. Bigelow attributes Crystal Bridges’ success to “the integration of art and nature that’s built into our persona. Our mission creates a different kind of experience here, which prepares you to enter into a dialogue with the art and with each other. The setting unites the power of art with nature.”

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas - Grace Farms
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Located in a ravine surrounded by 120 acres of beech forest with miles of trails, the natural setting attracts visitors who might be reluctant to enter a white-box, urban gallery. “We get people who’ve historically been afraid to walk across the threshold of a museum before,” said Bigelow, whose portfolio was recently expanded to Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. “We like to welcome everyone, from overalls to bowties.”

Increasing regional access to art seems to have sparked a kind of social renaissance locally. According to a Walton Family Foundation study conducted from 2011 to 2015, interviews with northwest Arkansas residents reflected a marked increase in quality of life and a heightened level of participation in cultural experiences. “Our job is to help people discover new ideas and new ways of thinking,” Bigelow said, “to help them dream bigger, or maybe differently, than they had in the past and have them do something with that new knowledge and experience.”

Gallery at Crystal Bridges. Courtesy of Arkansas Tourism Bureau

An extensive roster of programming aims “to inspire new ways of thinking,” according to press materials, and features a speaker series with artists like Marina Abramović, Lynda Benglis and Carrie Mae Weems. Art classes for adults and children (from toddlers to teens) teach hands-on skills, while art symposiums, with artists like the Jamaican-American Nari Ward, “explore issues of identity, race, class, gender and environment through the lens of artworks.”

“It’s about connecting with people, about identifying our similarities and having a respectful discussion of our differences,” Bigelow — sounding quasi-utopian — said, adding, “We’re a community gatherer.”

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Does this sound too good to be true? Well, as a cherry on the Norman Rockwell sundae, a 2014 Crystal Bridges study found benefits of field trips for 140,000 students in three years included increased knowledge, enhanced critical thinking and a higher level of tolerance and empathy. Here’s a thought: maybe our leaders in Washington should study Hudson River School paintings instead of warfare scenarios?

Sharon Prince Grace Farms
Sharon Prince, a co-founder and president of Grace Farms Foundation. Photo: Erin Kayata / Hearst Connecticut Media / via

Amazing Grace

Another new nonprofit art center infused with idealistic goals and a welcoming spirit is Grace Farms Foundation. It was founded two years ago at a former equestrian center in the affluent town of New Canaan, CT (population 29,000). Its President, Sharon Prince, described the founders’ motivation in a phone interview: “We opened with this new paradigm: the idea of creating a space that has the freedom for people to explore and choose how they want to engage.” Already more than 50 nonprofit organizations, like Arts for Healing and the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, have accepted the offer. Sixty-two women and teenage girls have participated in domestic assault-prevention classes.

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The raison d’être for Grace Farms is to provide a physical place (through “space grants”) for local, regional and international nonprofit organizations to meet and formulate strategy. “We absolutely want to help advance the good in the world that nonprofits do,” Prince said, “but we also think about how they can contribute to this place.” Collaboration is key. The nonprofits become partners to advance Grace Farms’ goals of promoting positive social change through its five emphases: nature, arts, justice, community and faith.

Grace Farms Foundation River Building
Grace Farms Foundation River Building. Photo: Dean Kaufman

Set in a meandering glass-and-steel, canopied pavilion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects SANAA, and featuring site-specific works by artists like Olafur Eliasson and art classes and residencies, Grace Farms sees culture as just one seed being sown in this suburban farm. “We’re not a park, library or arts institution,” Prince explained. “It’s all of those combined, with art embedded in the site helping to contribute to your experience and the life of the space.” Beyond the natural beauty of the 80-acre wooded site, Prince insists that addressing difficult issues like racial injustice or the Syrian refugee crisis is crucial. After panel discussions on such thorny issues, a 45-minute talkback ensues, with attendees participating in a discussion and search for solutions.

Prince hopes the facility will attract even more groups devoted to progressive social change. After two years’ existence, punctuated by monthly, communal dinners open to all, it has become a nexus for other nonprofits and already shows positive results. For example, activists working at Grace Farms drafted legislation to curb sex trafficking of minors that was adopted by the Connecticut legislature. A 2017 session trained hotel workers to recognize potential sex-trafficking victims.

Acting Out

The fusion of active outdoor and indoor engagement seems to be a key element in the success of these venues. Cheryl Hargrove, president of HTC Partners, a consulting firm that advises clients on cultural tourism, noted in an interview that “an immersive experience is one of the key trends not only for cultural tourism but also for consumer enjoyment. No longer is passivity desired. Everybody wants to be much more involved, either in the way information is delivered or received or experienced.”

Grace Farms River Building
Interior of Grace Farms River Building showing library and conference room

Continuing to attract interest and participation after the novelty of a new organization wears off requires offering more than just a romp through a pretty site. “Instead of ‘one and done,’ it’s important to think about how to get people to come back,” Hargrove said. That’s where community involvement — not just visitors from outside the area — is essential. For sustainability and maximum impact, the experience should not be a stand-alone activity but integrated into the local community’s DNA. Grace Farms, for instance, offers not only community gardens, a library, gym and auditorium for programs like dance and music, but a commons area for shared meals.

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The personality of a place should set the stage for one’s experience. “Authenticity is very important … something place-based, appropriately and distinctively placed,” Hargrove said. Local benefits — either economic gain through visitation revenue, linked services or intellectual capital, such as education — should result. The true bottom line is whether local residents engage with the attraction and are proud to have it in their community.

Sustaining the benefits of arts-related philanthropy isn’t automatic. “These ventures are not always a sure thing,” Michael Rushton, an Indiana University authority on public policy and the role of nonprofits in the arts, explain in a phone interview. “You will have hits and misses.” Distant from art-world hubs, it’s difficult to predict what will attract people to venture off the beaten track to a festival or museum.

Sometimes things in an unlikely place like Crystal Bridges are a huge hit. Yet, he cautioned, “Arts tourism can be vastly overestimated except for the biggest cities and the biggest attractions.” There’s not an infinite capacity, he noted, for traveling to far-flung locations. Rather, most arts audiences are local and regional rather than tourist-dependent.

For areas without a critical mass of aficionados, or lacking transportation infrastructure to make visiting accessible, sustainability requires the founders to maintain financial support. Alternatively, if the facility provides real social and cultural benefit to the local community in terms of quality of life, its continued existence is more likely.

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Rushton cautions against heeding local boosters such as real-estate developers and those in the hospitality industry seeking to win tourist dollars. Instead, the potential for local growth in terms of cultural amenities should outweigh investment to entice outsiders. Focusing on enhancing local life rather than economic development also avoids the potential downside of decentralizing culture: gentrification — which threatens to price residents out of their homes.

Providing arts experiences to people in underserved areas can be a game-changer, Rushton said. The greatest benefit is giving opportunities and experiences to young people: broadening their minds and transforming a provincial area into a more interesting place to stay. With inclusive diversification a goal, spreading out cultural opportunities is also a strategy to increase the appeal of art beyond the cognoscenti.

Community building is a desired side effect of creative place-making. “It brings people together,” Rushton believes. “It also brings community spirit, something for people to rally around that has an impact on their lives and well-being.” Not just art galleries or sculpture parks but choral societies, amateur orchestras and theater groups “can make a tremendous difference,” he said, even if a town “is not going to be the next Bilbao.”

Seven decades ago, the social critic Theodor Adorno wrote, “In order for a work of art to be purely and fully a work of art, it must be more than a work of art.” Arts-activist philanthropists similarly hope that creating a cultural center will generate more than aesthetic pleasure. It could unite people of many backgrounds and germinate, “purely and fully,” a community.