Tippet Rise: A feast for the ears, eyes and intellect

FISHTAIL — On a tour of the Tippet Rise Art Center on a rainy Wednesday morning, Alban Bassuet did not need to say much about the impressions made by monumental outdoor sculptures dotting the 11,500-acre ranch.

Like Stonehenge, the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, the art installations at Tippet Rise speak for themselves.

But allow him to talk about the particulars—the million and one tiny details that make up the awe-inspiring whole—and the center director’s expertise, his passion and his love of precision are on full display.

Standing inside “Daydreams,” a phantasmagorical sculpture by Patrick Dougherty that has interlaced bundles of willows sprouting in and around a replica of a homestead-era schoolhouse, Bassuet pointed out that the school was made entirely of new materials.

The wood siding was meticulously stressed and aged to look a hundred years old, and most of the shingles were carefully removed from the side of the roof facing into the prevailing winds. Five layers of paint were laid onto the interior walls, each layer stressed to mimic the effects of decades.

New windows were installed, then treated and aged until they were cracked, warped and guaranteed to leak.

“The contractor was so distressed,” Bassuet said.

Inside the Olivier Music Barn, a larch-wood performance hall that is the centerpiece of Tippet Rise, Bassuet lingered as lovingly over the electrical and engineering systems in the basement as did he over the acoustical properties of the concert hall.

He mentioned one engineering detail that enhances those acoustical properties: greatly oversized ductwork, which allows air used for heating and cooling to enter the performance space without a sound.

Inside the barn, Bassuet noted the sharp corners built in just below the base of the high pitched ceiling. These help to amplify and project sounds, he said, like a ball ricocheting off the corner of a billiard table.

Much has already been written about Tippet Rise, in Montana publications and in publications around the world (just Google it), but given the size of the property and the scale of the artwork, you’re going to want to see it for yourself.

You may have to wait. The grand opening is Friday, but that day is already booked solid—with just 100 visitors. Philanthropists Peter and Cathy Halstead, the founders of Tippet Rise, want to have as little impact on the land and their neighbors as possible. But some slots are still available for Saturday and Sunday, and then for every Friday-Sunday throughout the summer. Admission is free, but visitors are encouraged to register online.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Alban Bassuet, left, is the director of Tippet Rise Art Center. Lindsey Hinmon directs outreach and logistics. They are seen here inside “Daydreams.”

Likewise, a seven-week series of summer concerts, featuring local musicians as well as some of the best performers in the world, has been sold out for a month. That means most of you—and your procrastinating Last Best News correspondent—will have to wait for another season of shows.

It seems almost comical to hear her say it now, but Lindsey Hinmon, director of outreach and logistics for Tippet Rise, said, “We didn’t know if we’d sell even one ticket. We were actually quite nervous.”

She and Bassuet betrayed no nervousness Wednesday, though workers were swarming all over the ranch—putting the finishing touches on the music barn, grading roads, completing work on the most monumental of the large art installations—just two days before the grand opening.

Bassuet said the activity Wednesday was actually relatively light, compared to many days in the past six years, since the Halsteads assembled the center from half a dozen ranches. He said there have been as many as 300 contractors involved in various facets of the project, almost all of them from Montana and many of them from Billings.

Josh Hallengrogg, project manager for On Site Management, of Bozeman, has been at Tippet Rise for eight months, working on the construction and installation of three enormous concrete sculptures that are meant to suggest geological features and ancient monuments and ruins.

Two of them, “Beartooth Porta” and “Inverted Porta,” were formed in man-made gravel mounds, lifted up by the biggest cranes ever used in Montana and laid into place. The third, “Domo,” was formed in a mound and left in place, with the supporting dirt and gravel cleared away.

To get some idea of the scale of work involved, watch this video chronicling the construction of just one of the pieces, the “Beartooth Porta.”

Hallengrogg has been with OSM for 11 years and has worked on some big projects at Yellowstone Club and on remote ranches, but this was unique.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Workers were putting finishing touches on “Domo,” one of three monumental sculptures created for Tippet Rise by Ensamble Studio, a Spanish architectural and construction company.

“This is a one-in-a-million project,” he said. “We’re doing stuff that has never been done before.”

Mike Toia, a piano tuner from Hawaii who will be at Tippet Rise all summer, spoke in similar superlative terms of the 12 Steinway grand pianos at the center, all of them older, reconditioned instruments—and two of them previously owned by Vladimir Horowitz, considered one of the best classical pianists of all time.

“Nowhere in the country is there a place like this, with this many instruments to choose from,” he said. The pianos are “all the same breed,” Toia said, but each has distinct characteristics that might appeal to one pianist and not to another.

Just as he finished tuning one of Horowitz’s Steinways inside the Olivier barn Wednesday morning, the Russian pianist Nikolai Demindenko, who will be performing Chopin and Liszt on Friday, strolled in and loosened up with a few dazzling runs on the instrument, filling the hall with deeply resonant sounds.

The Halsteads both come from wealthy families and are trustees of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, which supports numerous charities, music schools, performance venues and theaters in the United States and England.

They were inspired by the Storm King Art Center in New York to create an art center that celebrated music and art in a suitably grand landscape. They looked in Hawaii and several other locations before settling on the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Patrick Dougherty created “Daydreams,” a replica of an old one-room schoolhouse enveloped by willow branches. He imagined himself in school as a boy, lost in his own daydreams.

The concert hall, together with an adjoining outdoor performance space and buildings where visiting artists can live and practice, are all on a ranch once owned by the modernist painter Isabelle Johnson and her siblings.

Bassuet said the Halsteads were not even aware of that legacy when they chose to build Tippet Rise outside Fishtail. “This land was made to inspire art,” he said.

Bassuet, who has designed and built performance centers around the globe, including the opera house in Athens, Greece, said Tippet Rise is “the biggest art center in the world.” Tippet Rise and all the best art centers, he said, “are places of great meaning and great relevance in people’s lives.”

Most of the 11,500 acres is high benchland, rolling hills crisscrossed by deep canyons. Tippet Rise will also be a working ranch, serving as summer range for 3,000 sheep and 500 cattle owned by two area ranches. The Halsteads are as keen to make arts and culture available to Montanans as they are to foster an appreciation for ranching and land stewardship by visitors from around the country and abroad.

That is another reason for keeping visitor numbers low, and why all of the utilities for the center are concealed in an underground concrete structure. There are 36 geothermal wells to provide heating and cooling, and an array of solar collectors that doubles as a large carport to shelter a fleet of electric-powered vans that shuttle visitors around the ranch.

There are already three and half miles of trails open to walkers and bicyclists, with more to come, and Bassuet said they hope to be open on additional days of the week in the future.

Well, how did we get this far without even mentioning that the center’s music director is the pianist Christopher O’Riley? He is one of the best-known classical musicians in the country and one of the most recognizable fixtures on National Public Radio.

Nor have we gone into detail about the other artistic monuments on the ranch, the many educational programs and outreach projects underway or planned. We’ve said nothing of the screenings of Royal Shakespeare Company films scheduled for this summer, nothing of the concerts that will take place in and around some of the breath-taking artwork.

Our enthusiasm for writing about Tippet Rise probably exceeds your patience for reading about it, which is why we encourage you, again, to go see it for yourselves.

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