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Painting Outside the Museum Lines

November 15, 2018
With a new exhibit, Crystal Bridges and Visit Bentonville recognize public space as a critical canvas for creative expression

Yatika Starr Fields, a contemporary artist of Osage, Cherokee and Creek descent, tends to do his best work at night.

As he created his multi-hued, large scale mural “Astonishment of Perception” in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas, the city became his canvas and its unique history guided his brush.

Painted on the side of a law firm building that’s been in the community since the 1880s, the ambitious work centers on Lady Justice. But in Yatika’s rendition, she peers out from under her iconic blindfold, “seeing not the impartiality but injustices that exist today.”

'Astonishment of Perception,' by artist Yatika Starr Fields

Yatika’s mural is a towering work of contemporary art and a powerful statement on the too often overlooked role of indigenous artists in it.

The mural also is unique in its dual role as public art that also is officially included in a major museum exhibition — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s ambitious, “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices 1950s to Now.”

Forecast Public Art, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, has been helping the museum and other groups in Northwest Arkansas seeking to prioritize public art and expand their reach.

"There’s a distinction between art in public and public art,” says Jack Becker, the organization’s founder.

“I can take a sculpture out of my studio and put it in a public space. It might have nothing to do with its surroundings. That’s art in public. Public art is specific to people and place; the context of the site should inform the content of the work. Good public art resonates and has meaning for audiences that know that place, and for those who don’t, it can provide an opportunity to learn."

Yatika’s work marks the inaugural effort by Crystal Bridges to extend the reach of its exhibitions into the community via public murals.

Through the work of Yatika, his mother Anita Fields (a sculptor whose work is included in the current exhibition and part of the museum’s permanent collection) and others, Crystal Bridges is increasing access both inside and outside the museum to American artists who are ancestrally a part of the land.

“We see this exhibition as a contribution to a much larger dialogue,” explains Mindy Besaw, the exhibit’s co-curator. “The stories of contemporary art are incomplete without these voices.”

And for Crystal Bridges, the medium—public spaces that bring art front and center in a community—is a critical component of the message. “More curators are starting to think about the public realm as a venue for creative expression,” Jack explains.

“They are helping museums transition from being exclusive to inclusive, and Crystal Bridges is a great example of that. They have invested with great intention in what a museum can be in a community.”

Yatika Starr Fields discusses “Astonishment of Perception,” his public art painting in downtown Bentonville, Ark.

Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville, the city’s tourism agency, sees public art as a vital contribution to what the city can offer its visitors. “When Crystal Bridges was first built, folks would visit the museum and then get back on the road. We want to keep those visitors in Bentonville longer, and public art is key to the full experience.”

Murals and other public art installations can resonate in different ways with different audiences. But for community members and visitors alike, it can offer a deeper understanding of their collective experience.

“Yatika responds very specifically to the place,” says Mindy. “When he met the owner of the building, he was especially inspired by the history of the surface he was painting on. That’s how we got Justice peeking out from her blindfold. You always hope these little synergies happen. When they actually do, it’s so exciting.”

“People know the arts contribute to quality of life, economic vitality, cultural tourism, jobs for artists and fabricators,” says Jack. “They know that civic pride—while it sounds intangible—is a really valuable asset for any community to have.”

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