THE WORD THAT seems to get used most often when the folks behind State of the Art 2020 talk about the project is “snapshot.” It’s a moment in time, a slivered cross-section of what it’s like to live in this moment. But still, even though “snapshot” is an appropriate term, it doesn’t quite capture the scale of the exhibition debuting Feb. 22 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and soon-to-open contemporary arts space the Momentary. Because much like its predecessor, 2014’s State of the Art, this second iteration doesn’t just represent what art, and by extension life, looks like in, say, Bentonville, Arkansas—but scales up, zooms out, seeking to catch a glimpse of the country as it is today (or at least the lower 48).
Beginning in Sept. 2018, curators Lauren Haynes (who headed the exhibition), Alejo Benedetti and Allison Glenn traveled the country, searching out artists whose work might help us better understand the moment in which we live. Along the way, the curators noticed that certain thematic through lines started to emerge: World-building. Sense of place. Mapping. Temporality. Despite the vast swaths of geographic distance separating one artist from another, there were still common concerns, both local and global, that drove the work of these 61 artists—and by extension, the exhibition.
For a little more insight into how State of the Art 2020 came about, its themes and messages, and what it was like working on the Momentary’s debut exhibition, we turned to the curators themselves.
(Editor’s note: Our interviews with the curators were conducted separately. The excerpts from those conversations have been edited for length and clarity.)
What was the process like?
Lauren Haynes: We started similarly to how the first State of the Art started, which is that we reached out to colleagues working across the country and asked them to recommend up to five artists each who they felt deserved a closer look in their areas. So myself, Allison Glenn and Alejo Benedetti—we then started looking at websites, looking at images of these artists, reading artist statements and then deciding if we wanted to do a studio visit, if we wanted to go there. We were already sort of saying, OK, here are artists in this part of the city or even three hours’ drives from each other. Let’s see if they’re available and around for a studio visit.
Allison Glenn: We really gave ourselves the opportunity to get a sense of how artists were working, and what kind of concepts, themes, ideas, questions were emerging from various practices in different parts of the country. So this is by no means a “who’s next in contemporary art” or a “ones to watch”—although I can say that I strongly believe that all these are artists to watch.
It’s more that the themes themselves, the concerns, the questions that these artists were raising or engaging with, considering in their work, started to coalesce around themes of world-building, place, the idea of home, questions of time. So after we realized that there were a majority of the artists in conversation, we really allowed the themes to develop through the artists’ practice instead of saying, OK, here’s what we’re looking for.
What sort of messages were being expressed in these works? Hope? Frustration?
LH: I think the answer is: Yes. We were sort of finding a lot of different things. One of the things I love about being a contemporary curator and working with living artists is that when we have difficult things going on in the world—when times are, as you say, tumultuous—I often enjoy being able to turn to artists to sort of see how they’re thinking through these things, to see what artworks they’re making, to really help get an understanding and to sometimes gain clarity, in a way.
There’s not necessarily a completely bleak outlook, nor are there completely things that are just positive. I think there are artists who are really reflecting and holding up a mirror in a different way and sort of saying, This is what is going on where I am. There are artists who are sort of creating completely different worlds. Then there are artists who are very much reflecting their own communities and the places where they’re from, but also artists who are thinking about, Well, what are these borders? What are these places? What does it mean to be from a different country or from a different part of the world living somewhere else? And how you make work that talks about that and reflects on those ideas? So it’s really helpful and exciting to think about the ways in which artists can help us gain clarity, but also to ask different questions.
At what point did you decide what the themes were?
AG: You know, a big part of our jobs as curators is to make connections between ideas and objects, and so, after a time, you just become attuned to that practice. As you see things over time, you can connect, Oh, this artist is talking about this thing with this material, and this other artist is talking about this same kind of theme with a different approach. So the fun part of curating is when you’re able to make those connections, right?
And so that’s kind of just how the themes were developed. We didn’t set out with the four themes and try to find artists that fit it. We set out visiting artists in their studios, and some artists preferred to meet for a cup of coffee. I met one artist for empanadas, which were some of the best empanadas I’ve ever had in my life, so I’m super grateful. That definitely didn’t influence his inclusion in the exhibition, although he is in the exhibition, but themes started to emerge from the conversations. And themes started to work from the work, so we listened closely, and we listened carefully.
And there are three of us, so we come from three distinct perspectives. And what’s really great is that I think we work really well together, and there are certain ideas that I think we all felt very strongly about, and we just had to speak to these ideas with the artwork and the artists that we were engaging with. And so it was a process of refinement with language, which I feel like, as you know, being a writer, the process of refinement with language is endless. So, we were really just trying to get to the meat of what we thought the artists were saying and then allow their individual practices and work to really speak for itself. So there were a few artists who could be in multiple categories.
It’s 2020. We’re in an election year. You know, a lot has changed since the last time State of the Art was done, which was 2014. A lot is different. Our political landscape is different. Our cultural landscape has shifted. Popular culture has shifted. It’s a completely different decade. It feels right to do it again, and it feels right that different concerns and different questions, ideas, thoughts, dreams would be presented. So we relied on all of those things to inform our understanding of how best to communicate what we think the artists are doing.
How are those themes represented?
Alejo Benedetti: With [a theme] like world-building, I think about the different artists who lean in that direction. So someone like JooYoung Choi, who was an artist that I met with in Houston—the moment I walked into her studio, it was like being transported somewhere else. I mean, you walk into the space, and it’s colorful, and it’s all these puppets and different soft sculptures and paintings, and they all are filling out this enormous—she calls it the “cosmic womb,” which is [a fictional land] 6,732 miles long. And it’s this whole world that she has invented. And the thing about any artist who is doing some form of world-building is that—creating some other place is never just sort of an escapist activity; it’s always in response to the moment in which we’re living. So for her, it grows very much out of autobiography, but the “cosmic womb” is this place where everyone is welcome.
And in thinking about a moment in time when we have a migrant crisis, when we have all these different sorts of ideas about borders and people belonging in certain places, thinking about the cosmic womb as a space where truly anyone is allowed is not just sort of an escapist fantasy. It’s something that is very directly tied to the moment in which we live. I think that’s a very specific example of an artist who is doing world-building—and doing world-building on a sort of epic scale.
How does all of the work fit together, then?
AB: I think this is one of the things that’s really interesting about the show, because with 61 artists, there’s this whole range of different approaches to making. And even within—in thinking about JooYoung Choi, and all of her stuff is very bright and very colorful, and then somebody like Tabitha Nikolai, who [is] doing work that … she’s effectively making a video game. She’s also doing world-building. The aesthetic of that is completely different from JooYoung Choi, yet there’s also this component of autobiography. There’s also this component of creating safe spaces that are happening within what she’s doing. And in thinking about those two works—two examples that on the surface are visually extremely different, and even how folks are interacting with them is very different—as soon as you sort of get beyond that top layer, you see this enormous amount of conversation that’s happening.
I think this is something that’s very true across the show, and I think it’s part of what is so exciting about the exhibition. You can see how these works are working together, even though at first glance, it might appear that they have, visually, little to do with each other. But as soon as you get beyond that first layer, you find all these sorts of opportunities for conversation.
Usually, when I think about site-specific work, I think about the physical space, but it sounds like these are specific to the place, thematically.
AG: That’s right. Well, what you mentioned also—many artists are making work specifically that fits obviously the architecture of the building, so 10-by-10, or something like that, and there are considerations that the artists have to make. So I would say that it’s a combination of works that reflect the place they’re from, and that are also made specifically for this community and for this exhibition. So there’s a combination. There’s one artist whose name is Scott Hocking, and he’s from Detroit, Michigan, and he’s creating a work called Arkansas Traveler and really just relying on the story of the Arkansas Traveler and using materials that reference this. There’s another artist who’s thinking about Americana and just thinking about the fact, you know, that we’re the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and kind of collapsing ideas around what an American-art museum is, the idea of America and Americana—so, really thought-provoking projects.
What is that process like for site-specific works? Is it something where your role almost becomes that of a collaborator?
AG: Oh, I would never say that I’ve become a collaborator. I definitely would not feel comfortable saying that. But you really do become an advocate, more like a thought-team member. Whenever I work with artists who are making site-specific works, I really try to get a sense of and understand how they work first, and then get a sense of what they might need to be the most successful.
I would say that it’s important to note that there are many people on our team who are part of that process, right? So, there’s an exhibitions team. There are designers. There are people who work directly with the artist who do more hands-on work. There’s one artist Cory Imig, who’s from Kansas City, and she’s creating a site-specific work. It’s similar to other work she made, but it’s created specifically for Crystal Bridges. And there’s going to be some colors, some wall color. And she’s working with our design team to understand what colors are being used in the overall exhibition—to choose a color that will complement and not compete with the color scheme of the overall exhibition.
I see my role as really just trying to put the pieces together and critically think, Who’s the right person for this question? Or: Is there something that we might have missed? Or: Who needs to be in on this conversation? Who needs to be pulled together in a room to make this successful? So really just [being] an advocate for the artist and an advocate for the museum, and bringing the right people together so that things can happen.
After the studio visits, where we’re going out to meet with the artists, select work, select artists, then it’s moving into the production of the exhibition, which becomes, yes, equally, if not more so, intentional, because we’re not just working [as] the three of us; we’re working as a whole museum toward this. So there’s more at stake because there’s more stakeholders at that point, and there’s more at stake because it becomes that much more real. You know? When every department is working on it, it becomes that much more real.
What’s it like to be part of that, the first exhibition at the Momentary?
AG: Well, it’s been so interesting to work toward this exhibition in the building that is also being developed, so, getting a sense of the space without having been in the space before it becomes a gallery. We’re coming into the space as an active construction site. You know, so much of what we do is visual, and it’s also the relationship of objects, and objects to objects, and the relationship of objects to your body and the relationship of things in the space. Being spatial people, it’s very difficult to work in that way when you’re not in the space. It’s not difficult; it presents a certain set of challenges that are not impossible to move through—but thinking about how familiar or unfamiliar we are with the galleries because this is the first exhibition in them.
Sometimes I sit in the galleries at Crystal Bridges when I’m planning a new exhibition here, and I just sit and think about the architecture and how to arrange objects, and how that might make sense. So we also work with a team of designers: one is a trained architect, and one, I think, is working toward that. So we get by with a lot of really good support from professionals. But for me, so many decisions are made based on the space—that we just have to trust that the decision we’ve made is the right one. That’s what it’s been like. It’s been so interesting, and also very exciting to open this new contemporary space with this exhibition.
But yeah, there was a lot of visiting in hard hats, and safety training. What it’s like to curate an exhibition that consists of a live construction site is something else. So there’s a lot of imagining with renderings and floor plans. And then there was physically going in the building and imagining where walls were going to go and where things were going to change or where they weren’t, because the team that’s opening the Momentary has really decided that some of the walls will shift, but a lot of the interior architecture is going to remain the same. So it’s going to be very much an industrial site, in that the building would develop further if necessary. Sometimes temporary walls can be built, but a lot of the galleries are going to look very industrial, which is cool. It’s a very cool approach, very different than Crystal Bridges.
How does this relate to the previous State of the Art?
LH: You know, we have biennials and triennials, and all of these exhibitions that happen at different institutions every so often, and now State of the Art will happen every five years. This is a model that, as a curator, we’re all very familiar with. And it’s just exciting to think about, OK, well, how do you add to the legacy of what this exhibition series will be? The first one, you’re right: They did it, and they proved that this concept works and were able to come up with a really exciting exhibition for 2014. And now we think about what that means and what that looks like in 2020. It was exciting to think about, OK, what group of artists are the three of us excited about, and what group of artists do we feel like are a good reflection of this moment?
So that was something that was exciting to think about, right? Because this moment has already happened and knowing that we could add our voices to this conversation, and also knowing that we’re not the last State of the Art, it’s also going to keep going, so there will be other curators working on it in five years. And what does that mean, and what does that really look like? And really, it’s knowing that we don’t have to make an exhibition that’s the only one, or the last one—that it’s just a continuation of this series.
What are you hoping that people will take away from this experience?
AB: I think the show is a very exciting snapshot of a very particular moment from a particular curatorial team that went out and saw it. And I think this show could have been done many different ways, but we found artists who are really brilliant and have a lot to say, and say it really beautifully and eloquently. And I think that folks are going to see a whole range of different things, and they’re going to see artists tackling ideas in a whole lot of different ways. But I think that consistently, they’re going to be really stunned by what they’re seeing.