Crystal Bridges' State of the Art Exhibition Means Business for Arkansas Artists

Delita Martin: “I think Crystal Bridges put many of the artists on a totally different stage.”
Delita Martin: “I think Crystal Bridges put many of the artists on a totally different stage.” (Jaosn Burt)
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Martin believes in marketing: “I’m here in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I’m knocking on people’s door and I’m saying, ‘Hey, here I am.’” | (Photo by Jason Burt)
Martin believes in marketing: “I’m here in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I’m knocking on people’s door and I’m saying, ‘Hey, here I am.’” | (Photo by Jason Burt)

It took weeks before Little Rock artist Delita Martin could allow herself to accept that her work was to be included in the State of the Art exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

She first received an email from museum curator Chad Alligood early this year asking permission to visit her studio, a small detached building behind her 1920s-era two-story frame house three blocks from the Governor’s Mansion.

Alligood recorded his interview with the 41-year-old artist, and about a month later Martin received a text message. Then her phone started pinging.

“‘Congratulations on the Huffington Post interview.’ And I’m going like, ‘What are you talking about?’ So I started Googling myself, ‘Delita Martin’ and ‘Huffington Post,’ and it was the interview that I’d done with Chad,” she said.

Only on further research did Martin learn about the planned exhibition at the Bentonville museum. “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” is a vast survey of contemporary American art, assembled after months of road trips covering 100,000 miles to search out talented but overlooked artists.

She asked her husband, Cedric A. Martin, the director of human resources at L’Oreal USA, “‘Do you think —?’ And he says, ‘Well, I don’t think they would have put the interview out there if you’re not going to be included.’”

But it wasn’t until a museum representative asked her how it felt to be included in the exhibition that Martin could acknowledge the reality. “That’s when it really sunk in what was happening.”

The exhibition, which has gained national attention, has been transformative for the artist, who has three pieces in the exhibit.

Martin, a printmaker who combines drawing and painting to create her images, focuses on portraits of African-American women. Don Bacigalupi, president of Crystal Bridges, wrote in that March Huffington Post article that Martin “captures and rethinks images of African-American women in her work. Little Rock’s complex and sometimes violent racial history, including the rocky desegregation of the city’s schools under armed guard in 1957, serves as a poignant backdrop.”

Martin, whose father was an artist, had been successful before the exhibition. She and her husband have an 11-year-old son, and she’d been bringing in enough income to support herself with her art for about a year. Her work has appeared in exhibits and she is represented by Kyle Boswell, owner of Boswell Mourot Fine Art of Little Rock and Miami.

But inclusion in State of the Art has been something different.

“I think it opened the door for a new type of collector for my work,” she said in an interview last week at her studio. “I think Crystal Bridges put many of the artists — and especially myself, I can definitely speak for myself — on a totally different stage.”

That stage is “more of a national stage. I think it’s broadened the individuals who look at my work. Whereas it may have been 90 to 95 percent African-American collectors who were looking at my work, it’s opened up this diverse group of people who are now stopping and saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is something that we should be paying attention to.’”

Of 14 large pieces that Martin showed at a recent exhibit at the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff, she has sold all but perhaps two, she said. She has also sold most of her work from a recent show in Dallas.

Martin’s pieces tend to be large, more than 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall in one example, and sell for from $3,000 to $7,000.

Martin, a native of Texas, is one of four Arkansas artists whose works were chosen for the exhibition. Also included are Guy W. Bell of Little Rock, Linda Lopez of Fayetteville and John Salvest of Jonesboro.

The four Arkansans are among 102 artists from across the United States whose works were chosen for State of the Art, which with 200 works is the museum’s largest exhibit. The exhibition opened Sept. 13 and extends through Jan. 19. Admission is free and is sponsored by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sam’s Club.

Bacigalupi and Alligood visited nearly 1,000 artists during months of extensive travel, which began last year. They called it “the ultimate road trip.” The artists’ ages range from 24 to 87; 54 of them are men and 48 are women. They come from all parts of the country.

The art is as varied as its makers. It includes traditional works on canvas and paper as well as photography, sculpture, video and installation pieces.

The exhibition seeks to represent the current state of American art, and many works are unconventional and cerebral. In “Reflecting Room,” for example, Washington artist Dan Steinhilber has covered an entire room in reflective material more often used for insulation. “The title suggests both the opportunity to see oneself in its mirror-like surface, and the space to contemplate life’s larger questions,” the museum explains.

‘A Phenomenal Boost’

Like Martin, Guy W. Bell has also benefited from inclusion in State of the Art, which chose to exhibit his painting “Cain and Abel,” in which a pair of dogs, one white, one black, do battle on a dirt road. “It’s been a phenomenal boost to my work, like an IPO basically,” the 34-year-old artist said.

He’s sold pieces to collectors in New York and in Singapore and is now trying to rebuild his inventory of work.

“Arkansas is where I call home and I try to keep the prices reasonable,” Bell said of his art prices. Works start from $1,000, but private commissions start at $3,000, or $4 an inch.

Bell, who is married and has a 5-year-old daughter, said he has been supporting himself with his art for the last six months. He takes a business-like approach to his career.

“It’s the same as any small business,” he said. “Anybody that’s an entrepreneur that starts out has the same thing: They want to be their own boss. They want to be independent. They take a big risk for a big reward. It’s worth taking that risk to raise a family and be successful.”

Boswell, the gallery owner representing Martin, began representing Bell just a couple of weeks ago. The State of the Art exhibition is “a great launching pad for just a lot of opportunity nationally and locally and even internationally,” said Boswell, who in a previous incarnation was a Little Rock developer, the head of Middle March Ltd., which developed the Ice House Revival in Hillcrest.

“People are looking for emerging artists,” Boswell said.

‘It’s Pretty Intangible’

Not all artists included in the exhibition are seeing new sales.

Randy Regier of Wichita, Kansas, creates what might best be described as dream toys, works that look like vintage toys from a slightly disturbing parallel universe.

Crystal Bridges brought his piece “Nupenny’s Last Stand” to Bentonville, where it sits in an alley between two buildings downtown, a locked one-room toy store whose wares can be glimpsed but can’t be touched.

Regier, 50, also produces individual fantasy pieces that can cost from $6,000 to $12,000. A particularly appealing sculpture, a gleaming steel, aluminum, plastic and Lucite piece called “A Machine to Dispel Sadness,” recently sold for $20,000.

Asked in a phone interview how inclusion in the exhibition has affected him, Reiger said:

“Frankly? I’ve been in my studio a lot less because I’ve been doing more talking about my work, being invited to talk about my work, a few more dinner parties and road trips. To date, since the beginning of the show to now, it’s pretty intangible.”

But he’s grateful for the attention and he recognizes that it’s early in the exhibition. And just because he hasn’t seen any tangible effects “that does not mean that it hasn’t been a good thing for me and for my family to be recognized and for the work to be noticed and to be part of a good show,” he said.

In addition, the piece that is being exhibited, “Nupenny’s Last Stand,” is large and not easily transportable; it’s not art that seems to be easily attainable.

Regier, who left a career in auto body repair, isn’t making a living as an artist. His wife’s income supports the couple, who have two grown children.

But he loves what he does. “I really feel like I’m doing what I’m best at doing and what I feel I do well,” he said. “One good sign of it is oftentimes I don’t even know what time it is.” When he worked for others, Regier said, he spent a lot of time watching the clock.

Martin, the Little Rock artist, has made her peace with the art and commerce conflict. “I don’t think that anyone can have a business or attempt to run a business and not be well versed in every aspect of it,” she said. “You have to be.”

Martin works closely with Boswell in setting the prices for her work and tries to be involved in sales of her work “as much as possible.”

“Any negotiations that take place, nothing is done without my consent and permission,” she said. Boswell, like many gallerists, takes 50 percent of the price of an artwork, “and I personally have to make sure that that is worth it,” Martin said. In places like New York, the cut can be 60 percent.

And she has no problem marketing herself to keep the momentum provided by the State of the Art exhibition going. “It’s me knocking on doors. It’s me contacting friends and saying, ‘Hey, who’s your contact in New York, who’s your contact in L.A.? Do you mind sharing?’”

“As an artist, we have to understand that we have to wear many hats,” Martin said. “I was hoping that I could go into art and not have to deal with the business part of it, but unfortunately, that doesn’t really work.”