Futuristic partnership developing between UA, Crystal Bridges

by Robin Mero ([email protected]) 1,259 views 

(PHOTO CREDIT: Stephen Ironside.) University of Arkansas students helped Portland, Ore., artist Jessica Pezella create ferns for her paper-flower installation, "Unfading Flowers," which was exhibited in the spring at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

When a Portland, Ore.-based artist needed help last spring constructing an exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, museum officials in Bentonville called upon the University of Arkansas.

To the rescue, UA art students cut hundreds of fern fronds out of emerald paper using a laser cutter, forming the backdrop for “Unfading Flowers,” a dimensional piece based on Emily Dickinson’s poem, “There is Another Sky.”

Collaboration between the museum and the university is becoming more common. Sometimes it’s spontaneous, but it’s highly intentional, and they’ve only begun to explore possibilities.

Students in the UA’s Tesseract Center, a game development and visualization studio, are designing a game-based virtual reality app to teach American history using “Winter Scene in Brooklyn,” an 1820 oil painting by Francis Guy, from the museum’s collection.

A university 3D printer was called for to create furniture for the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit and a reproduction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Origami chair. Architecture students helped design and build the welcoming pavilion for a rare Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house, known as the Bachman-Wilson House, which was disassembled in New Jersey and reassembled in its entirety at Crystal Bridges in 2014.

In the upcoming spring semester, the museum’s leadership team will teach a new UA class, held at Crystal Bridges. Students will venture behind the scenes and discuss emerging issues for museums: the role of technology in an object-oriented field, ways art can drive economic growth and sustainable tourism, and best practices for presenting controversial art and subjects.

The museum will seek viewpoints and ideas from the students: What’s a museum’s responsibility for social good? How can they be relevant to diverse audiences? How can they best impact the public education system?

Students are interning at the museum, and graduates are finding careers. Facilities managers call each other for advice.

UA classes visit the museum library and borrow material via inter-library loan. And professors make use of museum art that is germane to what they are teaching — even calling upon art that’s in storage.

“We want the University of Arkansas present in every part of our work,” said Margi Conrads, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs and strategic art initiatives. “We’re always thinking of ways we can help students and how we can help those at the university do their job better. You can be in accounting, business or an environmental science major. There are things going on that are connected, and the beauty is that it’s all mutually beneficial.”

Both entities are poised to benefit and grow from these collaborations, with the Walton family standing behind each of their endeavors. Last year’s visionary gift from the Walton Charitable Support Foundation, which established the UA School of Art, encourages the alliance, with the aim of propelling the school as a center of excellence in art education, art history, graphic design and studio art curriculum.

Among the multitude of opportunities that arise is publishing.

The UA Press is now printing the catalogs that accompany each special exhibit at Crystal Bridges. The books are robust and heavily-illustrated, written by the curators to offer more detail about the exhibit, its individual works and the artists.

“Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now,” which debuted in October, was the first print collaboration between the press and the museum. They’ve now begun work on a catalog for “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,t” an exhibit about American comic culture opening February 2019. A fall 2019 catalog for an exhibit showcasing the natural element crystal is to follow.

The UA Press edits, designs, prints, warehouses and distributes the catalogs, keeping the museum involved in all reviews. The museum receives a 5% royalty and can buy catalogs at 40% below list price.

“This is already wonderful work, and we add our own type of scholarly approach,” said Mike Bieker, director of the UA Press. “What we do best is publicize work going on inside an institution and take that work outside its walls.”

Involving the UA Press widens the potential audience for catalogs beyond the art world to encompass scholars and the public at large. The catalogs will be offered via Kindle, but also the digital library JSTOR and online database Project Muse.

The publishing schedule is faster than usual for the press, and production costs can be high due to the books being so graphic heavy, Bieker said. The catalogs accompany exhibits as they leave Crystal Bridges and move to other museums, where they will also be offered for sale.

Both parties raved about being able to consult in-person.

Another area of focus is professional development for K-12 teachers across the state. The $120 million Walton gift to the UA announced in August 2017 emphasizes education and history programs at the UA, and the museum’s educational team is increasingly looking for joint programming opportunities.

The grant document calls for the school of art to “create a signature program that uniquely positions it as the place of study for American art” by its fifth year. Collaborations between the UA and museum are to embrace K-12 professional development, student teaching, research fellowships, course development and content expertise.

“We’re in conversations with colleagues there as programs are designed to think of the museum as a lab,” Conrads said. “We want to think very entrepreneurially about how our programs can intersect.”

Many universities have art museums on campus, but not of the scale and with the resources that Crystal Bridges can offer, Conrads said.

“We can have greater impacts by working together, and we have many different kinds of expertise in both institutions,” she said. “The university feels they’ve added to their constellation of faculty and staff, and we can have a broader base of expertise. We share a mission: to change the value proposition around art into being a necessity, rather than a luxury — something embedded in our daily life.”