Large-scale art, musical performance and stunning scenery converge at Tippet Rise Art Center – COOL HUNTING®
Golden in the late September sunlight, tall prairie grass quivers in the breeze beyond the bay window of the Olivier Music Barn at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Fishtail, Montana. The Barn, an acoustically-engineered performing arts center, hosts a diverse array of international talent every year, from awe-inspiring string quartets to mesmerizing classical pianists. Outside this intimate facility, 12,500 rolling acres are home to monumental, perception-altering sculptures, a charming indoor-outdoor restaurant, and an outdoor amphitheater. Tippet Rise is often compared to New York State’s beloved Storm King Art Center, but the sprawling Montana site is also a working sheep and cattle ranch – and honestly something in its own right.
The synergy of musical performance, sculpture and natural landscape at Tippet Rise includes the vision of husband and wife founders, Peter and Cathy Halstead. The first is a musician and poet while the second is a fine artist; both have a deep knowledge of music and literature and speak with poetic enthusiasm. Together they began with a quest for land to house an idea that had long percolated. They had considered locations in Colorado, California and even Hawaii. “We had seen some very nice places,” Cathy explains, “but nothing that made your heart skip a beat.”
Familiar with the town of Red Lodge, not far from Fishtail, Peter explains, “I woke up and said to Cathy, ‘We shouldn’t do anything until we see Montana. Cathy continues, “It was 2009 and within a week Peter was in Montana, driving to all the great ranches for sale near the mountains. Nothing felt right until it came to the plot that would become Tippet Rise. He was dressed in a pensive mist and he couldn’t help but take pictures. He called Cathy and she arrived the next day.
“Honestly, I could smell the dirt in my cells. It was almost like an electric sensation. I fell in love immediately,” says Cathy. “More than any thought, it was more like a physical sensation.” Peter attributes this to some of the immediate sensory factors, from the scent of sage (which reminded him of Nantucket and the Scottish Highlands) to the sounds radiating around him. These are evident as visitors arrive today.
In many ways, this sensory stimulation makes the perfect nest for a concert hall. “If you have a land like this, without any trees on it, and you have this big sky where the clouds mimic the land, you have a kind of magnetism. There is a parallelism that reminds me a lot of music of the spheres,” says Peter of the concept, rooted in philosophy, that the tones of celestial bodies line up in patterns of proportion.
“What is music if not frequency?” asks Peter. “It is the basis of all natural algorithms. It’s science but it’s also art. It’s something that [sculptor] Marc Di Suvero [who has work at Tipper Rise] always believed. Why don’t we use art to measure what we do? Why do we just use science? Peter uses the music to explain: “There was a time when Bach lived, when a fugue was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It all started in one place. It ended in the same place. It was created from nothing and yet it has become as vast as a cathedral. While it was composed or played, that was it. It was the universe.
“In a way, Tippet Rise is an experience,” adds Cathy. “It was an opportunity for us to bring together all of our passions – all of the experiences accumulated within us over our lives that were moving and, I would say, awe-inspiring.” She references deep concerts she attended, as well as her life with a husband who is a pianist, and even visiting Storm King for the first time around 1978 and being the only person there, discovering something which looked like a new world. Cathy wanted to know if she and Peter could create something for a new generation of visitors who explored these passions amidst “the sky and the landscape, this beauty”. She continues, “How does it feel to experience art in the kind of landscape that takes you both outside of yourself and deeper within yourself?
While walking the 15 miles of trails that showcase the art, visitor experiences range from delight to wonder, contemplation and self-reflection. Our visit aligned with the recent addition of acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei’s ‘Iron Tree’ (2013), a towering rust-red metal sculpture created by assembling replicas of branches sold on the streets of China in carts to push. It can be seen as a meditation on forced unity or a disregard for individuality. The work is in conversation with environmental artist Patrick Dougherty’s ‘Daydreams’ (2015) and his new addition, ‘Cursive Takes a Holiday’ (2022). These two elements are made of woven wood found on site. Nearby, Burkinabe architect Francis Kéré’s Pritzker Prize-winning wooden pavilion, “Xylem” (2019), is functional art at its finest.
While Ensamble Studio’s eight-foot-long, 13-foot-tall ‘Domo’ (2016) may be the most sought-after artwork on the site, it’s nearly impossible to pick out a series of facts. highlights of Tippet Rise. Ensamble’s ‘Inverted Portal’ (2016) and ‘Beartooth Portal’ (2015) are no less powerful, each carefully framing part of the landscape and carrying all who approach.
And di Suvero’s bright red “Proverbe” (2002) soars 60 feet. The sense of surprise one gets while hitting the trails is an integral part of the Tippet Rise experience. Peter and Cathy also plan to bring more parts soon.
Most artists have carefully chosen the position of their work. The Halsteads were also careful not to disturb the natural landscape with the built environment. They worked with Laura Viklund of Gunnstock Timber Frames on the Olivier Barn and the nearby Will’s Shed. Inside the former, they also brought in Arup for the acoustic engineering after visiting Benjamin Britten’s Snape Maltings in England. “We’ve never heard such beautiful sound,” says Peter. “It seemed to fall like rain from the ceiling.”
Peter visited all the small rooms in Europe that Arup had built, to see what they looked like and what their construction values were. Then he went to their sound lab in New York. “They can create a room for you on the computer and you can hear the sound. You pick a piece and you hear him play in that piece,” says Peter. “You can then adjust the size and shape and, in turn, adjust the sound.” In the end, the Olivier Music Barn was designed as a setting, respecting the golden ratio. They added a cupola like Snape Maltings and a halo for extra bounce. The result, when paired with the concrete floor and the performers playing on the floor rather than an elevated stage, is a welcoming and wonderful atmosphere.
Will’s Shed is a recent addition and features fresh food from Red Lodge’s PREROGATIVE kitchen. Originally, they would have pop-up restaurants. “You can’t keep a tent in Montana,” Cathy says of the change. “There is too much wind. We realized this during our first season when our tent flew away. We said we had to have a place for everyone to be in the shade, where we have delicious food. The name comes from Peter’s grandfather, a beloved family figure.
Our visit was in the idyllic early fall and Tippet Rise has a seasonal lineup, with concert season starting in late summer. According to the Halsteads, there is no bad time to visit. “Tippet Rise has a hundred seasons,” says Cathy. The ideal visit does not correspond to anything in particular, “but it can be more precise, to a day or an hour, rather than to a season”. From Stephen Hough evoking a storm during his performance to the soft blanket of snow in late fall, where “the line between heaven and earth disappears,” according to Cathy, it’s about embracing what Montana has to offer.
There’s a generosity to Tippet Rise’s mission to inspire. Artist-in-Residence James Florio continues to roam the grounds, capturing new details and perspectives. Beloved composer John Luther Adams has masterfully dreamed up new works at Tippet Rise. Beyond that, the art center uses social networks, YouTube and Spotify in particular to share what happened on site. Additionally, they host a free high-res DXD download library on their website and provide performers with three-camera recording right after their showcase. All so that those who can’t be at Tippet Rise can hear a concert the way people in the audience heard it.
Tippet Rise is a profound example of two people’s dedication to art and music. Peter and Cathy are both well aware of when they fell in love with art: he writing an essay on the Astor Place Cube, she drawing a picture of a Calder stabile her parents kept on a coffee table. in mirror.
“I want people to be in a meadow with a room that belongs to them, for which they have no competition”, concludes Peter. “They just connect with this piece and explore what it means to earth and sky, and what heaven means to the piece as well.” Tippet Rise certainly offers that opportunity.
Images by David Graver