'Lowell's Ocean' steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero

View from the Crystal Bridges Museum gallery bridge to "Lowell's Ocean," a steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero. (Timothy Hursley / Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art )

When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened its doors in Bentonville, Ark., in late 2011, a primary goal was making contemporary art accessible -- both intellectually and physically -- to people in the region. Not to mention unearthing emerging artists that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The museum’s president, Don Bacigalupi, and his curator for special projects, Chad Alligood, are currently midway through a cross-country road trip, meeting hundreds of artists and visiting their studios -- 400 studios and 40 cities over the past six months -- to witness firsthand what’s actually going on in contemporary American art.

This week the duo is in Los Angeles, and Culture Monster caught up with them shortly before they set out for another day of art-scouting. 

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They started with a list of more than 10,000 artists, they said, culled from recommendations from friends, curators, artists, peers and others; then they whittled it down to roughly 1,000 studio visits in each region of the country.

About 100 to 125 of those artists -- across mediums, including painting, sculpture, drawing, multimedia, performance and others -- will be included in a fall 2014 exhibition at the museum.

“We thought the most important thing was to involve the artists -- where they live, how they work, and understand how their work is coming to be,” Bacigalupi said. “Rather than the museum tradition of selecting work and presenting the work divorced of its context.” 

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Bacigalupi wouldn’t reveal any names of the artists he and Alligood have met with in L.A. -- it’s too early for that -- but he did say they’ve seen artists of all ages, from a third-year MFA student to a mid-career artist in their 50s. And they’ve visited the areas of downtown L.A., Pasadena, Altadena, Manhattan Beach, Pacific Palisades and Culver City, among other neighborhoods, Bacigalupi said.

Across the country, they’ve seen some common themes: work speaking to environmental and economic issues as well as issues of identity. In L.A., they said, they’ve also seen work about community, isolation and connectivity, within both the geographical and digital realms.

Bacigalupi and Alligood have also been conducting short video interviews with the artists they’ve met. 

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“We want to find a way to include the voice and the process of the artist with respect to the individual work,” Bacigalupi said. “Talking about art, as typically presented, it’s often without context, as though it descended from the heavens fully made and it wasn’t a product of labor from artists who worked in a place, a studio. So we’re working on a variety of platforms through which that notion can be integrated into the show.”

Look to Culture Monster in the coming months for news of and conversations with the L.A. artists the museum has chosen for its upcoming exhibition.

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