Northwest Arkansas in the last decade has made strides in becoming a more welcoming environment for art and artists, but a panel of artists at Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Spring Arts & Culture Festival said the region still has room to improve in terms of fostering a thriving arts community.
The panel of artists, educators and curators from NWA and abroad spoke on the topic of the creative environment on Wednesday (March 7), the second day of a two-day event, in White Auditorium at Burns Hall on campus. Dayton Castleman, museum manager at 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, served as panel moderator for he panel.
“Seven years ago, with the inception of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – this tremendous, unprecedented investment in flyover cultural progress – catalyzed a lot of changes within the art culture in Northwest Arkansas,” Castleman said. “All of a sudden it became popular to be involved with the arts, to be artists. It brought in outsiders, like myself, who migrated because it was a very interesting thing that is going on.”
Castleman holds a master’s degree in sculpting from The School of Art Institute in Chicago and worked in Pennsylvania and Illinois, before moving to Bentonville in 2012. Local artist Heidi Carlsen-Rogers said many area painters are doing work geared toward interior design or a print market – “there’s not a higher-level art market here, but more of a practical art market.”
“We’ve not caught up yet as a viable and sustainable art community yet,” she said.
Still, she’s seen a shift in focus that she finds encouraging. Ten years ago, there was much less going on in the art scene.
“I don’t want to say it was a creative wasteland, but it was very hard to find art that was aspirational or art that was inspiring. As Crystal Bridges came on the scene, I think that changed the whole conversation around art,” Carlsen-Rogers said. “There was a seed planted of great art. … I do think the conversation is shifting to a little bit of a higher level.
“It is very exciting. It’s shifting in a way that the community is able to get to know artists and connect to them and sort of understand ‘the why.’ I’ve seen with some of the things I do in the community there are more non-art people showing up, and I think that’s a beautiful thing,” she said.
NEED FOR ‘SIDE HUSTLE’
Panelists pointed to a need for plentiful gallery space as being connected to artists’ success. Kenneth Siemens, an artist and chief creative officer of the design agency Kerplunk Creative, said a number of area businesses now display local art, which makes it easier for an artist to become “more viable and more visible.”
He agreed the conversation around art is changing, particularly with art in public spaces, pointing out Fort Smith’s The Unexpected mural project downtown as proof to that. Several smaller and independent galleries also are starting to open in the region.
Purdy Eaton, a visiting artist from New York City and originally from rural Indiana, said the arts scene in NWA is young, and there are many ways to get one’s work out there.
“The New York art scene has been around a while, but it was a nascent art scene at one point,” she said, and one solution during that time period for artists looking to show their work was artist-run galleries.
“Because the world is so digital, because you can be anywhere within 72 hours, I don’t think location matters as much in terms of creating a community,” Eaton said. “I’ve sold art to people on Artsy to people who have never seen it. … With all these additional outlets, the idea that a white-box gallery controls your entire career trajectory – it’s not as strong as it once was. It opens up the art world for a lot more choices.”
At the same time, Eaton stressed the importance for most art-makers to support themselves in some other way, whether it’s through design work, consulting, or a separate track that’s not related to art.
“Of all the artists I know, 20% – maybe 10% – make a full living just on selling their work. Most of them need to have some sort of side hustle,” she said. “It’s not a cash cow. There are only so many rock stars. There are only so many art stars.”
PRO VS. COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Amethyst Rey Beaver, assistant curator of 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Ky., said an artist who works in an area like NWA, outside the larger cities and arts hubs, should look beyond the amount of money they can get for a piece and also become more comfortable with relationship-building over a more transaction-centered process. For example, a group with which Beaver works borrowed some works for a touring exhibition and then wound up commissioning the artist for a project in another city.
“Obviously, you’re not going to get the same people coming and seeing your work in Bentonville as you would in Miami, but there are amazing opportunities for artists here, I think, because of lower cost of living – lower overhead that allows people to maintain creative practices in ways they wouldn’t necessarily be able to if they were living in London or if they were living in New York. From an art economy standpoint … there is rich opportunity.”
Michael Maizels, assistant professor of art history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, compared different career tiers of artists to those of athletes. There are 1,000 times as many people who want a spot in the NFL, as there are open spots.
“Look at how many Division 1 athletes got to big-money schools with full-paid scholarships compared to how many new players are in the NFL that year,” he said. The local option for someone who wants to be involved in sports might be to coach high school football.
He said one potential problem within the area’s art scene is there seems to be an attitude that leaving the region to further an art career and staying to establish oneself locally are mutually exclusive.
“It feels like there this hard-and-fast thing where, if you’re a local artist, batten down the hatches and defend the local scene or go to New York,” Maizels said. “My students feel like they have to choose one of those two trajectories that they’ll be going on forever. I think for this place to grow in the way that it wants, it needs to view itself as permeable, a place that you can move away from and come back.”
Maizels said it would be beneficial for NWA artists to spend time enriching their careers in other areas and for the region to “participate in an ecosystem, rather than itself become New York by bootstrapping it.”
Wherever an artist is, it’s important to have a network to tap into, Eaton said. As an artist in New York, she said she benefited from sharing studio space with some of her former graduate school colleagues.
“Having your own community, someone to bounce ideas off of or to just to have critical dialogue with, that’s very important.”
In addition to making her art better, it’s made the process more social and enjoyable, she said.
Beyond leasing or purchasing shared studio space, Eaton recommended engaging with others.
“Everywhere you go, be open to conversation and personalities,” she said. “Everybody knows somebody who has something interesting to say, if you take time to – not always looking down at your phone, just texting and posting – and just actually have a dialogue with the people around you, that’s something that, no matter where you are, is extremely critical.”
Interacting with all types of people also will “make your art better than it would be if i just spent all my time sitting in my studio by myself. Participating in the world in any way makes you a more interesting person, informs your world and translates into a more interesting visual output,” and those experiences can also be gained through an artist’s “side hustle,” she said.
Eaton also said adaptability to new technologies and to what’s available to an artist at any given time is important.
“Being an artist means many different things now. I think the days of – ‘I do this one thing. This is what I do’ – are over. The world is very fluid,” she said.