- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) - An 11-step set of instructions awaits whoever opens “Box 11” upon arrival in Savannah, Ga., from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/20tpiZ8 ) reports that a similarly detailed list for removing artwork is included in each of the 79 custom-made crates being shipped as part of the museum’s “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” exhibition. Separate sets of instructions must be followed during installation of pieces at the Telfair Museums in Savannah and the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minneapolis.

Unpacking and installing the artwork traveling as part of two exhibitions set to open in February are among the many challenges facing employees at Crystal Bridges as they send their first uniquely created exhibition on the road.

More than 200 pieces from 102 artists make up “State of the Art.” It’s being divided into a 10,000-square-foot exhibition and a 5,000-square-foot version, which have been labeled by the institution as “10K” and “5K.”

For a first attempt at moving a collection of artwork, the museum did not start small.

“It is a gargantuan effort,” Crystal Bridges curator Chad Alligood said. “Each one of these fine art objects must be packed and cared for, not just via FedEx, but housed in a conservation-approved crate and physically moved from Bentonville, Ark., to Savannah, Ga., or to Minneapolis. And insured. It’s a huge effort behind the scenes.”

Alligood understands big undertakings. He was part of the team, including museum founder Alice Walton, who traveled 100,000 miles to visit nearly 1,000 studios in scouting art to feature in the collection of contemporary art.

“State of the Art” occupied 19,000 square feet during its four-month run at Crystal Bridges. It stands as the most attended exhibition in the four-plus-year history of the museum - 175,000 visitors - which was no small feat considering the included artists weren’t household names at the time.

For the past year Alligood and a team of curators, preparators, registrants and others at the museum have been working to move the artwork across the country. Part of the process included dividing the single collection into two exhibitions.

Seeing how the public and critics received the full “State of the Art” exhibition was part of the motivation for taking it on the road. There was concern that dividing the single collection into two sets might harm the spirit of the exhibition.

Alligood said the split was made using Crystal Bridges’ own institutional knowledge of the pieces and getting information from curators at the host sites. Few museums had 19,000 square feet to devote to one exhibition and even fewer are laid out like Crystal Bridges, adding to the difficulty.

“It was important that the fullness of the exhibition must be fulfilled in both,” Alligood said. “That was part of the decision-making process about what could travel and where. It’s a challenge to let go and see it take on new life and to put it in the hands of someone else, and trust that they know their spaces and their audience. Of course there are certain themes I insist on resonating throughout.”

Certain works, even those created by different artists, needed to be coupled, Alligood believed. Crystal Bridges retains final decision-making power on marketing plans and promotional material.

Museums often work two years in advance on securing partners for traveling exhibitions. Crystal Bridge cut that timetable by about half. Robin Groesbeck, director of exhibitions and interpretive installations for the museum, had conversations with about 30 institutions about featuring the collection.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art will host the “10K” show Feb. 18 through May 29, and the Telfair Museums in Savannah will be home to the “5K” from Feb. 19 through Sept. 4. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis will host the “5K” in 2017 from Jan. 29-March 26.

Contracts with additional host sites are under review.

Costs for traveling and insuring the artwork while on the road were not available. Expenses are being shared with institutions that will host the exhibition and Crystal Bridges’ goal is “to break even,” said Groesbeck, who has experience sending collections on the road in previous jobs with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

“We want to ensure that sending exhibitions out on the road doesn’t drain our resources, but we’re not looking to make a profit,” Groesbeck said. “Our priority is providing access to the works of art and interpretation and exposure to the living artists to the host venue.”

A registrant and preparator from Crystal Bridges will accompany the exhibition to each location. They will spend several days helping the host venues unpack and install the artwork.

ElyInc., a Washington, D.C., company that specializes in museum work, handles 10 to 15 large-scale traveling exhibitions a year. Because of the number of pieces and the variety of art included - paintings, photographs, sculptures, media - “State of the Art” was one of the company’s more challenging undertakings.

A team from Ely traveled to Bentonville in October and spent two days measuring, photographing and taking notes on the pieces that the museum intended to ship. That information was used to build the custom-designed crates and specialty packing material

Before Christmas, for about two weeks, a four-person team from Ely packed up the “10K” exhibition. It took a week in January to box up the “5K” collection.

“To look at pictures of the exhibition was one thing. To actually see it was something else,” Ely project manager Kirk Hoffman said. “This is such a vast array of different things. Typically a traveling exhibition is all photographs or all baskets. This was sculpture and paintings and photographs and media. It was a pretty big job.”

Artists have noticed the care taken by Crystal Bridges during the process. Once artwork is sold to an institution, the artists rarely have a say in how it is displayed or where it winds up.

Still, artists featured in “State of the Art,” which opened Sept. 13, 2014, feel their work is “in good hands,” Little Rock artist Delita Martin said.

“Crystal Bridges has been professional from beginning to end,” Martin said. “To see my work being handled with such care, to see the way artists were treated on opening night, it means a lot. I think the work is in great hands. I think the handling has been with the utmost care.”

Despite the challenges associated with moving the exhibition, Alligood said the work has been worth it. Crystal Bridges stands to improve its profile with art lovers who might never make it to Arkansas.

Taking “State of the Art” elsewhere also opens up additional opportunities for the artists featured. And museums that might not ordinarily have access to contemporary art will have it.

“We really see the advantages of sharing the ‘State of the Art’ story with a larger audience,” Alligood said. “Crystal Bridges is all about accessibility. What better way to do that than to expand beyond the property in Bentonville? That’s the impulse behind it. We’re young as an institution. Traveling exhibitions that we have authored is something that a museum of our scale and ambition must do.”

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com

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