Art Bridges’ Anne Kraybill On Museum Partnerships and Why Art Should Travel

"Our model enables smaller museums to bring in and display new works without the financial strain or stress of long-term care and storage."

A woman wearing a cream blazer and an olive shirt smiles in front of a dark backdrop
Anne Kraybill is increasing regional museums’ access to more diverse art. Kendra Crellin, courtesy of Art Bridges

Late last year, Anne Kraybill was named CEO of Art Bridges Foundation, the nonprofit started by Crystal Bridges’ Alice Walton in 2017, which seeks to aid in the development of cutting-edge shows at regional museums. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based organization accomplishes this through loans from its impressive Art Bridges Permanent Collection and via other creative means.

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Kraybill came to Art Bridges from the Wichita Art Museum, where she served as director and CEO, and we had a chance to catch up with her about her plans for her new role.

I know you’re new to the organization, but are there any past Art Bridges partnerships that align with the kinds of projects you’d like to pursue in your new role?

I was thrilled when Art Bridges announced the Partner Loan Network. Getting art out of storage and on view in communities across the U.S. is the north star of our foundation. Over 95 percent of larger institutional collections sit in storage while many smaller, regional museums don’t have the acquisition funds to bring in the new works that help enrich and diversify storytelling in their communities. Our model prioritizes works by historically underrepresented artists—in particular, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and women artists, whose art tends to be less visible in regional institutions with smaller budgets.

Our Partner Loan Network simplifies the loan process, allowing larger museums to create “capsules” of three to ten works previously in storage to share those with other museums, which then have the chance to display those works for two years. I’m particularly energized by examples like the Huntsville Museum of Art, which incorporated loans from our Partner Loan Network into their permanent collection to create their first-ever galleries dedicated exclusively to American art. I hope to continue expanding this network to include museums with a wide inventory of American art collections, which can be shared with communities across the country.

Broadly speaking, why is it important for art to travel to different museums?

As I mentioned, most small regional museums don’t have large acquisition funds. Many collections are a product of their time or the collecting tastes of their donors, so the ability to bring a wider range of works to these museums is incredibly important to ensure that everyone feels represented. Moreover, art museums need to rethink how much work they acquire and make accessible to the public. Our model enables smaller museums to bring in and display new works without the financial strain or stress of long-term care and storage.

In addition, museums are still recovering from the economic impact of COVID. According to the American Alliance of Museums, 66 percent of U.S. museums have not yet returned to pre-pandemic attendance. To address this decline, we need to give audiences a reason to make museum-going a habit. The Partner Loan Network helps drive new and returning visitors to these institutions—and keep them coming back because they know there will be something new to see.

A sculpture of a womanly figure wearing a spotted yellow onesie on a skateboard; she has flowers for a head
vanessa german (b. 1976), Black Girl on Skateboard Going Where She’s Got to Go to Do What She’s Got to Do and It Might Not Have Anything to Do With You, Ever, 2022; Lemony things: vintage French beaded flowers, a yellow skateboard like I never had when I was a fat little Black girl in Los Angeles when riding a skateboard meant that you could fly, Capidomonte Ceramic Lemon Center piece, a dance in my thighs, high yellow so-flat paint, porcelain bird figurines, decorative resin lemons, papery yellow flowers; meanness transmuted, love, oil paint stick, rage, self-loathing transmuted, a joy-bitch, masturbation, plaster, wood glue, black pigment, giddiness, freedom in the body, freedom in the Soul, wood, tar, wire, a distinct and purposeful healing, hope, yellow flood light, heart, yellow decorative ceramic magnolia figurine, acceptance, abandon, not being afraid to be full of your own self in your own divine body, divinity, fear transmuted, plaster gauze, magic, silicone, tears, epoxy, water, tomorrow, now, yes. 48 x 22 x 26 in. Art Bridges

Art Bridges has a great collection and a noble mission. What are your plans for amplifying its reach? 

I think about the artwork we have from our partners and our own collection as seeds. Just like planting a seed, you can’t expect it to flourish without proper care. We also can’t expect to “plant” these works at institutions and expect that the public will just show up. This is why our Learning and Engagement initiatives are so important. Every organization that borrows art from Art Bridges programs can also receive supplemental financial support to offer dynamic, innovative, locally relevant and inclusive programming developed in collaboration with their communities. This provides the chance to co-create meaning through, for example, collaborative label writing or community dance performances in the gallery, inviting those who might not have considered an art museum to be a welcoming or representative space.

How responsive should museum exhibitions be to the tastes and politics of visitors? How do you walk the line between catering and education? 

The beauty of really great art is that it allows people to experience nuance, which can be sorely lacking from discourse in mainstream media. I remember when I was the Director/CEO of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, we brought the Art Bridges exhibition, “Border Cantos: Sonic Border,” to Greensburg, PA, a very conservative community. Though I wondered about the local reception of an exhibition centered around such a contentious issue as immigration and the Mexican-American border, we found that the community was eager to engage in a dialogue that centered humanity and empathy rather than political talking points. That particular programming also fostered a wonderful opportunity for deeper learning about the history and future implications of this issue.

It’s worth noting that we didn’t just parachute this exhibition in. Art Bridges supported many conversations ahead of the opening about how to make this an opportunity for everyone to engage, regardless of their politics. That’s the awe of art: it offers an opportunity to expand your perspective beyond your own lived experience.

How do you plan to grow or deepen the collection?

We plan to expand the Partner Loan Network by continuing to engage with museums and provide them with the capacity to get their collections out of storage. This means financial support for the curatorial time it takes, minor conservation, crating, shipping, and insurance. Many museums want to get involved but have limited staffing and financial capacity beyond their own projects, so we try to ease the load as much as possible. At the same time, Art Bridges acquires art for its collection, ensuring we have an abundance of works to share with the goal of creating a more inclusive story of the American experience.

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You come to Art Bridges from the Wichita Art Museum. What are some of the unique challenges facing non-coastal museums today?

I want to flip that question to answer some of the unique challenges facing coastal museums or museums in large metro areas in the U.S. whose downtowns have not yet recovered from COVID. As remote work policies took hold, many cities lost their pre-COVID foot traffic, leading to large declines in earned income from admissions. When you look at smaller to mid-sized regional museums that were less dependent upon earned income, they were able to be incredibly responsive and nimble, even with their relatively limited resources. Larger organizations have a lot to learn from how these museums were able to serve their communities. This pertains to the broader challenge concerning the business models of art museums, aiming to ensure they have varied revenue sources and are seen as valuable public resources.

Do you have a favorite work in the Art Bridges collection? 

We recently acquired Kent Monkman’s Death of Adonis (2009). Death of Adonis is the first work by an Indigenous First Nations artist in the Art Bridges Collection and reflects our commitment to building an inclusive approach to American art. We hope that the lending of this work to museums and arts organizations throughout the U.S. will allow for broader stories of Indigenous history and nation building, offering moments to reflect on the ongoing impact of settler colonialism with more audiences. The direct link to Bierstadt’s The Last of the Buffalo also creates a space to discuss the legacy of American art and landscape paintings within spaces where these conversations are necessary. I can’t wait to share this work with our partners in what will be an exciting and provocative exhibition.

Art Bridges’ Anne Kraybill On Museum Partnerships and Why Art Should Travel