State of the Art – Shanai Matteson


Works Progress, Water Bar

Works Progress, Water Bar

When Works Progress got an email from Crystal Bridges requesting a studio visit, we replied to tell them there must be some confusion about what we make and why we make it.

The collaborative public art and design projects we create typically respond to local places, issues, and people. We work in close relationship and proximity with our community, evolving ideas and projects together over time. Although we consider ourselves professional artists, and appreciate art made by people who work in more traditional venues and contexts, we’ve never thought of our own work in terms of an art world of galleries, museums, and art fairs – in part because we’ve been fortunate to find and continue building grassroots networks of engagement and support, which constitute a different kind of art world altogether.

This all adds up to the sort of work that doesn’t translate well to survey exhibitions, especially those pushing broad macro narratives. So why did we decide to participate in State of the Art? A better question might be, Why did they decide to include us?

We agreed to the initial studio visit because we were genuinely curious if a broadly-sourced exhibition about the state of contemporary art and artists could accommodate artists like us: Artists who organize and create spaces for connection, conversation, experience, and meaning to emerge, rather than beginning in a fixed place with a finished piece; Artists who are challenging conventional art world narratives and infrastructures by creating new ways of working and new systems of support; Artists who are engaged advocates, though not necessarily of single points of view or simple solutions; Artists who insist on equitable collaborations, which includes helping to define the terms of our own participation in an institutional project.

When Chad and Don arrived at our studio we had a wide-ranging and candid conversation, much of it about our artistic process and where we hope to go with our work. They asked us smart questions, and seemed to genuinely understand the complexity of what we’ve been thinking about, making, and doing around collaborative art and water resources, an area of work we’ve been eager to pursue on a broader scale.

When they invited us to be part of the exhibition, it was not an easy decision. It feels good to be recognized for your creative work, but because our projects are collaborative and iterative, the attention on one exemplary project – created by two individual artists – seemed to miss the point completely. There was a lot to negotiate.

And then there was the issue of the broader context surrounding the exhibition and the museum itself: The incongruity of a show composed of work by a handful of artists from across the country – many of them addressing personal, local, or urgent social issues – being discovered and brought to Arkansas to challenge an elite art world based on either coast.

Though the curators never used that language or that explanation of the project themselves, it was easy to see how State of the Art would inevitably be promoted and understood in those terms. The fact that the vehicle for such a project is a billion dollar museum, admission sponsored by Walmart, is itself a poignant narrative about contemporary American life and the role of art in our culture. We knew we would get flack from our peers for participating. We also knew the opportunity was there to bring people into conversation who would not otherwise have the chance to connect.

I’d be willing to bet that a number of artists in the show experienced a kind of cognitive dissonance when considering their own role in State of the Art. You just can’t talk around money and power and social class with a project of this scope, focus, and location, even if there are many other important stories to tell.

I grew-up in poverty, in a rural community that was devastated by the same economic and political system that ensured people like Alice Walton could accrue incredible wealth. My small town was nothing like Bentonville is today, but in some ways, it is part of what Bentonville is today. Because of that, this exhibition strikes a bizarrely personal note for me.

I started making art as a teenager because I was angry and isolated, my family was broke, and it seemed like there was no hope things would ever change. Creating art was a way of digesting my own experience into something that could be shared, a way of making something out of nothing, and using that something to connect with other people. Because that’s where I began – a desire to understand and engage with issues of social class and their relationship to the movement of people and resources – it will always compel me, especially where it seems there’s potential to make the invisible visible.

There were many reasons we decided to participate in the exhibition, and one of them was that the people working at Crystal Bridges were extremely supportive of our vision. They asked us what we wanted to make, and we told them what was important to us, including transparency, collaboration, and making a project with real local involvement and impact.

Crystal Bridges introduced us to the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, and we were able to build a deeply collaborative, locally-focused project resulting in paid internships for 8 college students studying environmental sustainability from various fields of concern – including ecology, engineering, political science, business, and design.

One of these students told us that if it were not for this project, she’d probably be running coffee in the office of one of the corporate headquarters Walmart has gathered in Bentonville, and not getting paid for her time. As community college students, it’s been especially difficult for her and her peers to gain experience and put their education to use in Northwest Arkansas. Instead of running errands, for the five months of the exhibition she’ll be co-creating a public art project about the life-sustaining, precarious, communal activity of drinking tap water, and engaging local residents and other visitors in conversation about the places and lives they live in and around Bentonville.

Among those local residents are members of the Walton family, who rely upon the same water as everyone else, and have supported efforts to protect water quality across the country. One of the most interesting moments for me in this entire project came during the opening of the exhibition, when students working at Water Bar served tap water they’d gathered from rural communities around Northwest Arkansas, including from a Walmart store in Siloam Springs, to members of the Walton family. It was a moment of tension and possibility, and it led at least one of the students to ponder his own role as a conduit between markedly different realities.

Which brings me to the other reason we chose to participate: We saw this exhibition as a chance to directly engage people who are in a position to change those realities by rethinking their own perspectives and power, whether from a position of extreme wealth and privilege, or as students beginning a career in public service.

What are they hearing from the artists in this exhibition about life in contemporary America? And more importantly, what are they planning to do with those insights?


This text is part of a larger series, State of the Art: A Social Response. To put it in context, please read the other responses here.

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  1. Ann Klefstad

    Great account of the project– I was so interested to hear you’d done this. I think engagement is way better than purity, and I applaud your thoughtful use of the opportunity. Let’s hope they do more of this sort of thing!

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