Tippet Rise rallies around the pandemic and lands another sold-out season
FISHTAIL — On an emerald blue day in May on the campus of the Tippet Rise Art Center, Gabby Moldovan gathered elementary school children in a circle to write poetry as part of the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks outreach program. The organization has been running student workshops on Shakespearean themes since Tippet Rise opened in 2016 outside of this small town in south-central Montana.
“When kids are in their own schools, they feel so comfortable,” Moldovan said. “When it’s a place like this, it feels like something special to them – and to us. They’re going to remember it. It’s going to stick in their brains in a different way.
Tippet Rise, located on 12,500 acres in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains, features a working ranch, performing arts center and outdoor sculpture park with 13.25 miles of hiking and biking trails. A world-class recording facility and live performance venue – built in the style of a barn – hosts artists from around the world.
Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is just one of many organizations that access campus or receive financial grants offered by Tippet Rise. The confluence of art, architecture, music, education and landscape was co-founded by Peter and Cathy Halstead.
“Experiencing art and music in the outdoors has been a lifelong passion of ours, and establishing the Tippet Rise Art Center was our way of sharing that joy with others,” the Halsteads wrote in a joint statement. “We have long believed that music and art feel better outdoors. There is a sense of magic that nature adds to the experience.
The Halsteads, who are artists themselves (Cathy is an abstract painter and Peter is a poet, pianist, photographer and novelist), were inspired to found Tippet Rise after visiting sculpture parks in New York, Denmark, in England and France, and were also influenced by music festivals in Vail and Aspen – “all of which also celebrate music, sculpture, architecture, poetry and nature”, they wrote. Both came from philanthropic families generous towards the arts.
The couple, who have known each other since they were 16, said when they first saw the ranch, “it was screaming for something unique, for something that didn’t exist yet.” Montana’s vast sky, rolling grass and distant mountains proved an exceptional canvas to implement their long held vision.
“We are so lucky that Tippet Rise exists in one of the most scenic places in the world and that our music season takes place at such a beautiful time of year in late summer, which allows us to gather comfortably outdoors in the middle of nature,” they wrote.
In 2020, in response to the global pandemic, the Halsteads canceled the fifth summer season at Tippet Rise. Yet as the pandemic dragged on, sculpture parks and outdoor art experiences proved hugely important. In 2021, Tippet Rise reopened for hiking and biking only, but even with limited access, the sculpture park and performing arts center saw high attendance.
“The spotlight has really been on outdoor art and outdoor exhibits during COVID,” said Pete Hinmon, co-director of Tippet Rise. “What surprised me was the level of appreciation. People really tell you what it’s like to come to Tippet Rise.
Tippet Rise reopens for the season on June 10 and live music will return to the facility with van tours, serving approximately 300 people daily. The five-week music season begins August 26, featuring 20 international artists as well as several world premiere performances commissioned by Tippet Rise.
Tickets for the concerts are available each year by lottery, and these tickets have already been distributed for this year. All hiking, biking and sculpting tours are also fully booked.
When it opened in 2016, the park featured nine outdoor art installations, and in 2019 “Xylem”, a huge wooden pavilion created by internationally renowned architect Francis Kéré, was added. This season, several additional sculptures will be installed, including a third steel installation by Mark di Suvero entitled “Whale’s Cry” and “Iron Tree” by contemporary artist, documentary filmmaker and activist Ai Weiwei. Additionally, a series of works by Ensamble Studio titled “Folds” will add artistic concrete seating, molded from draped canvas, to campus and a permanent stage beneath “Domo,” a 98-foot-long creation that will is also used to host live performances. “Daydreams”, a temporary sculpture by Patrick Dougherty, will also be rebuilt around an existing house on the property.
On average, 60% of Tippet Rise’s visitors are from Montana, and the rest are global audiences, according to Hinmon. The popularity of Tippet Rise places the organization in a conundrum: either limit visits so people have a more private experience, or allow more visits and run the risk of inundating guests.
“It’s a really difficult balance,” Hinmon acknowledged. “We have put ourselves in a position where we are not able to open our doors freely and welcome everyone. If we did that, people’s experiences would be completely different.
Lindsay Hinmon, who co-runs the facility with her husband, said the organization has responded by extending the season from June to September this year and providing additional space for hiking and biking while balancing indoor concerts and outdoors.
“We like to promote small, intimate experiences,” she said. “This year we’re experimenting with bringing more music outdoors, which we’re excited about.”
“We love the intimacy of Tippet Rise,” added Pete Hinmon. “For us, that’s a smaller number of people per day, but it’s the most powerful experiences for those people.”
Access to Tippet Rise requires a reservation, although all slots were claimed by early June. This season, 75 hiking and biking slots were available daily, as well as 25 spots per day for guided sculpture van tours.
“We didn’t want to start a full-fledged van tour operation, hire all the drivers and have to respond to a new [virus] variant, and people lose their jobs,” Pete Hinmon said. “We try to find a happy middle ground.”
This season, Tippet Rise’s workforce will include a dozen seasonal employees as well as 18 full-time, year-round employees. Tippet Rise also relies on a volunteer base of around 30 people.
For the Halsteds, COVID-19 has not so much shifted their focus as it has broadened it. The organization responded to the shutdown by producing content online and launching a “Tippet Rise at Home” series that features streams of past concerts with Zoom discussions. They have also put together a video library and a collection of downloadable concert recordings.
“The effects of the pandemic have also encouraged us to find new ways to collaborate with other organizations and artists, which we very much hope to continue in the future,” the Halsteads wrote.
Tippet Rise also sends employees to schools in Montana and northern Wyoming.
“Tippet Rise’s reach is vast,” added Lindsey Hinmon. “We like to have kids come here as much as possible, but sometimes it’s easier to be able to go to schools and present Tippet Rise and talk about art.”
“Every summer, but especially this year after so much loss, anxiety and tragedy, we hope visitors find their experience at Tippet Rise meaningful and joyful,” they said.
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