In this post, we hear from guest blogger Shanai Matteson of Works Progress Studio in Minneapolis.  Shanai and husband, Colin Kloecker, developed Water Bar, a collaborative and conversational art installation that is currently on display at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art as a component of State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.  Water Bar is staffed by eight IRWP interns from NWACC, University of Arkansas, and University of the Ozarks. 


When we began to make plans to bring our Water Bar project to Crystal Bridges, we knew we would need the right partners to make it happen. We developed the project in our home state of Minnesota. Over time we have learned a lot about the water issues facing those of us on the upper Mississippi River, but we knew very little about the waters of Northwest Arkansas.

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Water Bar is a collaborative art installation on display at Crystal Bridges until January 19

Authentic connection to place and people is key to the success of our work. In other words: A drag and drop approach (bringing a project “as is” and expecting it to work in the same way) would not suffice. We knew we would need to make a connection with people who already had a deep commitment to the waters of Northwest Arkansas and their own reasons for engaging with a broader audience.

We already had one great partner in Crystal Bridges. Curator Chad Alligood immediately understood our need to find a water resource partner, and when we traveled to Arkansas for the first time in July, he introduced us to Dr. Delia Haak at the Illinois River Watershed Partnership. At first, our goal was simply to learn as much as we could about the Illinois River Watershed, but when we met Delia, we immediately knew that IRWP was the right collaborator for the Water Bar project. Not only did IRWP’s education and advocacy mission align with our artistic goals, the partnership’s approach to building broad and inclusive coalitions around shared resources and concerns really resonated with us as artist-activists.

In our work we try to open space for people to bring themselves into conversations with others, regardless of their prior knowledge or beliefs about a given topic or issue. We all have things to learn, and we all have experiences and knowledge to share. We’ve found that spaces which welcome and value this exchange of knowledge and curiosity—and the possible tensions and insights it generates—are actually quite rare. Yet these kinds of discursive and democratic spaces can open up important public conversations, and can help us to learn about the world through the experiences of other people.

What might happen if a space like this could be opened inside an art museum, where people may not expect to talk about environmental issues at all?

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Riley Young, IRWP Water Bar Specialist, prepares a flight of local drinking waters (Photo credit: Colin Kloecker, Works Progress Studio)

We were absolutely thrilled that IRWP not only decided to partner with us on the project, but to commit significant financial and human resources to the hiring, training, management and compensation of eight dedicated Water Bar interns. This incredible contribution to the project would come to shape the project in profound and surprising ways. IRWP was also crucial in helping us find the three waters the bar would eventually serve to the public.

We considered serving everything from private well water to locally bottled waters like Ozarka or Mountain Valley Spring, and even considered serving untreated water from Crystal Spring, an artesian spring on museum grounds (as well as the namesake of Crystal Bridges). Due to health and safety codes we had to rule out untreated spring or well water, and so decided to highlight public water. We eventually decided upon three municipal tap waters from the area: Beaver Water District (a surface water sourced from nearby Beaver Lake serving 400,000 people in the area), Siloam Springs (a surface water sourced from the Illinois River served to just under 16,000 people, and Sulphur Springs (a ground water – that tastes nothing like sulphur – sourced from an artesian well serving just over 500 people).

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IRWP Water Bar Specialists on Day 1 of training

After we met in July, we worked with IRWP to craft a job description that went out to local universities and community colleges. From a pool of applicants, eight interns were interviewed and hired. They each brought their own experiences with them, which included a purposefully diverse set of educational backgrounds: natural resource science, environmental law, biological engineering, sustainable marketing, and landscape architecture, to name a few.

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Water Bar training day

This group of interns – or as we’ve come to know them, Water Bar Specialists – became the most important element of this evolving project. When we met them all for the first time in September, we knew this was going to be a much more interesting and impactful project than we’d ever expected. Without exception they came to the table with curiosity, open minds, and interesting stories to share. We spent two days getting to know one another. We helped them understand our creative practice, and where it fits within the larger art world, as well as within the context of the State of the Art exhibition. Together we visited our three water sources to gather our first batch of waters to serve to the public. After a whirlwind opening weekend, we essentially left the project in their hands, staying in touch and helping however we could remotely from our home in Minnesota.

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Water Bar engages museum visitors in conversations about local water sources (Photo credit: Colin Kloecker, Works Progress Studio)

Letting go of a project and watching it unfold is a difficult thing for anyone to do. You have to be prepared for things to move in directions you cannot plan for or control. We decided early on to embrace this approach to Water Bar, hold it lightly ourselves, and encourage the IRWP Water Bar Specialists to shape the project from the ground up. This meant introducing information and ideas they found relevant, as well as new processes for engaging visitors to the bar.

And the visitors have been many! In an average week, the Specialists put in a combined 50+ hours to pour 60 gallons of water into 5,158 glasses and serve 1,716 visitors. In less than three months, Water Bar has served 12,125 people. Which, to put things into perspective, is 31% of IRWP’s total educational outreach for the whole year through mid-November.

While these numbers are pretty amazing, it is the human-to-human interactions that are really important to us in this project. Not long after opening, the Water Bar Specialists observed patterns in the ways people were approaching Water Bar. Visitors had questions about water, which we’d all expected; But they also had fascinating stories, ideas, and opinions to share. And when they shared those stories, the Specialists learned a lot about how to talk to people about scientific topics in ways that connect with their lives. The Specialists decided they’d like to try to document those stories, and so we created a simple prompt for visitors to share a memory of water.

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One Water Bar visitor leaves a poignant note about her experience with water back home

Water Bar is really a living project. We will not get a clear picture of what it means until after the State of the Art show closes in January, when we work with IRWP and Crystal Bridges to turn project documentation into a book or video that can be shared. In the meantime, we’ll continue to learn from the experience of collaborating with this wonderful group of interns, our partners at Crystal Bridges and the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, and from the many different visitors who bring their water stories to the project.

Here is an early draft of a video we are working on about the project. Thank you to all of the IRWP interns and staff, and to Delia Haak, Laurie Scott, and Riley Young for starring in this video!

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Additional Resources:

Water Bar

Works Progress Studio

State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now