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New Money For American Art Scholars!

Here’s some good news for lovers of American art, straight out of that (until-recently) backwater of any art — Arkansas (I say that kiddingly, because I love that there’s great art in Arkansas, though some RCA readers do not): Crystal Bridges has announced a research and residency program for scholars to study and promote the understanding of American art and a prize to recognize “lifetime achievement in American art.”

Both are being funded by a $5 million pledge from the Tyson family and Tyson Foods, the chicken processing company largely expanded by the late Donald Tyson and now run by his son John (below). It’s a naming gift — scholars will be called Tyson Scholars of American Art and it’s the Don Tyson Prize.  

Crystal Bridges (a favorite wall of mine there, showing Martin Johnson Heade’s Gems of Brazil is at left) has an extensive library and manuscript collection that the scholars can mine, and the press release noted that their research “may also provide fertile ideas for Crystal Bridges’ own dynamic exhibition program,” which is good since Crsytal Bridges has always said it wants to go beyond the current received wisdom in American art. Scholars will be expected to interact with the local community via lectures, symposia, and collaborations with the University of Arkansas.

The first class has already been chosen — through an internal committee headed by museum director Don Bacigalupi and the museum’s curator of American art, Kevin Murphy. From now on, a committee of Crystal Bridges’ staff and outside art historians will sift through applications, choosing on the basis of “their proposals’ potential contribution to the field of American art.” Tyson Scholar receive stipends “competitive with other prominent residency programs,” are housed in Bentonville, and “may apply for multiple semester-length terms of residency with a stipend for research and travel expenses.”

The first class, described in detail here, include  Matthew Bailey, from St. Louis; Jason Weems, from Riverside; and Susan Rather, from Austin.

The prize is in the works, but not announced. According to the press release:

A jury of respected museum and academic art historians empanelled by the museum will recommend for recognition an individual whose work has significantly advanced knowledge in the field of American art over the course of a career.  The honor carries a cash prize as well as recognition by Crystal Bridges during an event given in the recipient’s honor. Crystal Bridges has begun the selection process for the first winner, who will be announced once the rigorous nominating and vetting process has been completed.

Begun by Don Tyson, who bought Western art starting in the 1960s, the Tyson Foods corporate collection has been expanded and diversified by John Tyson. It now includes works by “Ansel Adams, Troy Anderson, Thomas Hart Benton, Charlie Dye, Sam Francis, Harry Jackson, Frank McCarthy, Charles M. Russell, Andy Warhol and Jack Woods,” according to the release.

I’m giving the penultimate word to Bacigalupi (because I agree with him!):

American art has historically received too little attention from scholars and academic programs as a field of research. Funding for its study has been sadly limited. Here at Crystal Bridges, we have made it part of our mission to help improve that situation. Thanks to the generosity of the Tyson family and Tyson Foods, our museum will be able to develop and foster a community of scholars committed to furthering the understanding and appreciation of American art. In addition, through the Don Tyson Prize, named in honor of the late Don Tyson, former chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods, we’ll also be able to honor people who have advanced American art during their career.

This changing, no doubt about that — and this will add more momentum.


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