PHOENIX — Two men stepped out of a rental car in Phoenix recently and walked up to a modest ranch-style house with a cat and a grapefruit tree in the yard, worried the homeowner might mistake them for missionaries or salesmen.
They were neither. They were representatives of one of the wealthiest art patrons in the world, Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress and founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. They had come to the door of painter Monica Aissa Martinez, 51, hoping to discover a genuine, unheralded American art talent.
The men, Don Bacigalupi, the museum’s president, and Chad Alligood, a curator, crowded into the artist’s studio off her kitchen and admired her work, a mix of Southwestern mysticism and anatomical precision that looked something like X-ray images as painted by Gustav Klimt. Then they bade her goodbye and hopped back into the car. They had reason to hurry: They had logged 50,000 miles visiting 500 artists in 30 states, and they had almost 500 more artists to go.
The goal of their unusual art hunt — an old-fashioned canvass of the country — is to find 100 underrecognized artists, culled from a list of more than 10,000, to feature in September in a show that will represent Walton’s first attempt to plant her institution’s flag firmly in the world of contemporary art.
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Her museum, which has drawn more than 1 million visitors since opening in 2011, is a 21st-century version of Gilded Age collections like those amassed by Henry Clay Frick in New York and Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. But Crystal Bridges is in a small city in the Ozarks, the first museum of its size to open between the coasts in more than a generation.
The show will inevitably be seen as a kind of heartland response to the Whitney Biennial, the barometer of the country’s art that has helped to bring to prominence such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons.
Hoping to make their own discoveries of that caliber, Walton’s emissaries have looked high and low, sometimes literally. In Portland, Ore., Bacigalupi was invited to an artist’s dark basement, where she showed him a sculpture resembling a coffin and he momentarily feared for his safety. He and Alligood, a Harvard-trained curator who grew up in rural Georgia, have ventured to places so small the GPS has given up (a farm near the unincorporated town of Ponca, Ark.)
They have seen art on a goat farm, in a soap factory, in a defunct pie factory. They interviewed one artist they were fairly sure was high on cocaine and another who was profoundly stoned.
“There have been times over the past few months,” said Bacigalupi, a Brooklyn-born contemporary-art specialist, “when I wake up and literally have no idea what city I’m in.”
While the Whitney many years ago broadened its focus beyond the United States, Crystal Bridges is building its show not only around the curators’ road trip but also against the all-American backdrop of the museum’s growing collection by such artists as John Singer Sargent, O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell and Pollock.
Jennifer Doyle, an English professor and contemporary-art specialist at the University of California, Riverside, said she saw the idea as a challenge by a nonurban museum to the art-world dominance of New York and Los Angeles. Bentonville has a population of 38,000, smaller than the average weekly attendance at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
She added: “Personally I wish it wasn’t Wal-Mart money that was doing this. But I guess it would be the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel critique to point out that Wal-Mart is often blamed for hurting the sorts of places — small-town, middle-class America — where they’re now looking for this kind of individual expression.”
Bacigalupi said Wal-Mart rarely came up in discussions with artists.
While Wal-Mart and its subsidiary Sam’s Club have contributed to make admission to the exhibition free, he emphasized the company had no involvement in shaping the show. Alice Walton, 64, the youngest child of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, is not involved in the company’s operations; she declined to be interviewed about the project. Forbes magazine estimates her worth at $33 billion, making her the world’s eighth-richest person.
By early February, traveling together and separately, Bacigalupi and Alligood had visited 650 artists in more than 120 cities and towns. The only part of the country they had not yet penetrated was the tricky northern Great Plains, where airports and artists are few and far between.
“You see a lot of work that starts to look the same … and then every once in a while you find that artist who blows you away,” Bacigalupi said.
The curators have tried to stay away from commercial galleries, hoping for artists the market has not discovered. They compiled their list of prospective artists by talking to fellow curators, museum officials, local art leaders and established artists.
“For a lot of artists, this is the first time they’ve ever been visited by an art professional,” Alligood said, adding that for all the artists visited personally, he and Bacigalupi have interviewed more by Skype, phone and email.
To manage the task of keeping track of what they have seen, the curators have leaned toward the analog, a ring-binder notebook with a rudimentary Olympic-type scoring system: 10 possible points for a quality called “engagement,” 10 for “virtuosity” and 10 for “appeal.” So far, the highest rating is a 28. In Bacigalupi’s office in Bentonville hangs a large map of the United States that sums up their thinking, months before they will make definitive choices. Pins are stuck in several states for likely choices, but many more are clustered out over the Pacific Ocean, representing artists from various states in a sort of holding pattern who may yet be brought to shore (metaphorically) for this shot at art-world recognition.