Tippet Rise: An Arts Institution Emerges from the Rockies

Big Sky Country welcomes a massive center for the arts—and an unlikely new reason to visit.

You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Fishtail, Montana. The unincorporated town in Stillwater County lies deep in the mountains between Billings, Bozeman, the Beartooth Mountains, and the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It counts only 478 souls among its residents. But starting today, you’ll be glad someone had.

Cathy and Peter Halstead, lifelong philanthropists and art patrons who split their time between Montana and Hawaii, have spent the better part of six years amassing an impressive collection of large-scale sculptures, including works by Ensamble Studio, Mark di Suvero, Patrick Dougherty, and Stephen Talasnik. All they needed was a permanent home where they could present their passion to the public. Fishtail—with its proximity to Montana attractions and stunning natural beauty and vast openness—was the place.

So the couple purchased a 11,500-acre working ranch in 2010. Naming it Tippet Rise, they set about creating an arts center in the west. They enlisted Alban Bassuet as the director, charged with overseeing the programming (with music director Chris O'Riley managing the tunes), but also with convening a team that would carve out 3.5 miles of hiking trails and dig beneath the earth to house the mechanicals necessary for such a vast arts institution. (Staunch environmentalists, the couple plans to have their center LEED certified soon.) They hired Wyoming-based architects Gunnstock Timber Frames to build modern vernacular structures for the musical performances, educational programming, and art exhibits that Tippet Rise Art Center, opening June 17, 2016, will now host.

Two outdoor pavilions, the Tiara and the Domo (itself a 98-foot-long sculptural structure), present music with 360-degree views of the Beartooth Mountains while also delivering unimpeachable sound and production values to audiences of just 150 or so. “The [nearly] 12,000 acres of our rolling hay under the mountains presents a surreal framework for both sculpture and music in absolute solitude—except for birds singing and the sound of wind—so that both sky and earth anchor the music,” says Cathy Halstead.

Debuting an arts center among the Rockies is not the typical route a major patron goes about spreading awareness of his or her good deeds—though on occasion, important arts institutions have taken hold out West, it’s true. The Santa Fe Opera and SITE Santa Fe are on any music- and art-lover’s checklist. And Daniel Libeskind's Denver Art Museum shifted focus to Colorado in 2006, when his gravity-defying structure doubled the available exhibition space at the largest contemporary art museum between Chicago and the West Coast. But for every one incredible performance space, arts institution, sculpture garden, or music hall in the tumbleweed states, there are a dozen on the coasts, drawing more and more visitors to their well-known collections and architectural masterpieces.

The Halsteads hope to change all that. They have been kicking around the idea of a safe haven for artists and their community for decades. “We have been inspired by our own extraordinary experiences of seeing art and listening to music outdoors and in small venues,” says Peter. “We finally reached the right moment in our lives—we found the right location and we were able to put together an unbelievable group of architects, acousticians, musicians, artists, staff, and a construction team to make our dream a reality.”

Now among the rolling acres of sheep and clouds and wildflowers you’ll find the site-specific sculptor Patrick Dougherty’s Daydreams, composed of locally sourced willow saplings and sticks. Stephen Talasnik was commissioned to create Satellite No. 5: Pioneer, named for the 1970's space-probe project. Pioneer occupies its own valley that can be used as a natural amphitheater where performances can be staged. Next month, John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit, played by 33 percussionists, will fill the ravine with sound.

The Halsteads also reached out to Washington, D.C.’s revered Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, part of the Smithsonian, to borrow two important works by Alexander Calder: his monumental Two Discs (1965) and The Stainless Stealer mobile (1966). Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, has high hopes for Tippet Rise, a potential cultural magnet that’s presently off the radar. "Tippet Rise will be a game-changer for the west,” says Chiu. “It's about music and art in the landscape—calling attention to the potential beauty of our presence on the land."

A sort of Storm King meets Tanglewood—a place where artists can free themselves within the untamed wilderness to create and perform new works, and where visitors can engage with the landscape and the art with little to disturb their contemplation—Tippet Rise just might work. Come during summer to wander the paths, listen to a piano concert, picnic on the vast lawn, and watch the cloud formations shift as they make their way toward Canada and the Pacific Coast. Then consider if the Rockies are not the best possible location for an immersive art experience.

Tippet Rise is located at 96 S. Grove Creek Rd, Fishtail, MT.; tippetrise.org.

Image Credits: Iwan Baan