A Conversation with Bo Bartlett: Artist, Patron, Community Leader
I met with Georgia native Bo Bartlett to discuss the arts center bearing his name at Columbus State University. Our meeting took place at the Warwick Hotel, but we first met in the late seventies, and our paths crossed again numerous times during the eighties when I was living, painting and teaching in Philadelphia. Bo had come out of the Pennsylvania Academy as a sort of wunderkind, alongside other dedicated young representational painters like Vincent Desiderio and Wade Schuman. Bartlett began showing with Marian Locks Gallery and within a few years began to attract major portrait commissions. By the mid-eighties, Bartlett was represented by PPOW Gallery in New York, and soon established a reputation as a major American realist painter. He was back in the city to install his most recent exhibition at Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery and I took the opportunity to ask Bartlett what had inspired the creation of his eponymous center.
McElhinney: What was the inspiration behind the Bo Bartlett Center?
Bartlett: Well, I didn’t have the original idea. An art collector in my hometown—my brother-in-law, Otis Scarborough—was behind it. His collection consists of probably twenty of my large paintings, mostly works that hadn’t sold because they were so huge no one would have bought [them] anyway. At some point Otis decided something needed to be done with all these paintings. He initially wanted to build an art center to complement the Columbus Museum of Art with an educational wing and with a social dimension that interfaced with the community. He took the idea to the Columbus museum, which already owned some of my works, but they couldn’t afford a separate building, which Otis wanted. He was on the board of Columbus State and friends with the president, who got behind the idea. The university was then in the process of building the Corn Center for the Visual Arts at Columbus State’s College of the Arts. Otis wanted to fold our center into the university’s new capital improvements plan, which was a solid idea. CSU raised the money needed to finish the art school but ran out of funds before it could build our Center. That was just before the near-global financial crisis of 2008. It’s taken us until now to get back to where we need to be.
McElhinney: How has it been doing business without a building?
Bartlett: I realized it was going to take a lot of leg work to get these programs up and running. The ideas that I had were to start an art-in-schools program, art for the homeless, art in prisons, art for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], a program for the disabled, and a psych program—art therapy. We plan to have six programs up and running by the end of this year. Right now we have two pilot programs that have been running for a couple of years.
One program “Art Makes You Smart,” was inspired by a study conducted by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art through the auspices of the University of Arkansas. Researchers tested the emotional, empathetic and cognitive abilities of students from outlying areas who had never been formally exposed to art. They were then brought to Crystal Bridges and showed one of Bartlett’s paintings. It was crucial to the outcome of the study for the kids to encounter a painting none of them had ever seen before. They were then asked to observe, describe and discuss what they saw. When given the same test again, they all scored higher in all areas—not just the humanities—which seemed to demonstrate the immediate benefit of being exposed to art. According to an article about the study published in The New York Times on November 24, 2013: “Students…demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.”1
The Center adopted the article’s headline, “Art Makes You Smart,” as the name of its art-in-schools programs. They fall under the heading of STEAM (STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—plus A for art), which is the curricular agenda behind the congressional reauthorization in 2015 of the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.” The so-called Every Child Achieves Act may compensate for the deficiencies of the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind initiative.
McElhinney: How do the programs work?
Bartlett: We go into schools with a group of ten or twelve volunteers, mostly art students from Columbus State who want to go into education. Local artists have also become involved. We deliver art into the classroom, because funding for art programs is dropping off. Too many administrators just want to focus on STEM programs.
McElhinney: Have you, or anyone involved with the Center, been involved at all in political action to get the act through Congress?
Bartlett: No. We interface locally for the most part. Muscogee County is developing a high school of the arts. We integrate our programs by preparing the kids for the high school of the arts. Those students can then go on to the program at the Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University. It will be a feeder system. Students who volunteer to be part of “Art Makes You Smart” will be qualified to go back into the schools and teach. So it will be a self-sustaining system. They can attend CSU for the art and then go back to the schools and teach. There is more of a conceptual program in the art department at Columbus State now. I want to create a separate program, an academic program that follows an atelier model for those who are interested in having the opportunity to study drawing and painting for eight hours a day, and really get their chops. My goal is to offer a two-year certificate program, after which they could remain in the university system to get whatever theoretical, critical, art-historical skills they might need—learning skills first and then taking this to the next level. Students should be able to pursue what they are passionate about.
McElhinney: Bring us up to date on the status of the Center’s other missions, such as art for the homeless, prison inmates, and soldiers who were disabled or suffering from PTSD.
Bartlett: “Home is Where the Art Is,” our program for the homeless, is now run in the basement of a Methodist church, a place also known as Safe House, which is where all the homeless people in Columbus go. They know they can stay for the day, get a free breakfast and lunch. It’s a safe place, modeled on a program in Jackson, Mississippi, started by an artist named Stacy Underwood. She took one of my master classes being offered by the Center. She started talking to me about what she had done in Jackson, which was exactly what we wanted to do. So she came in and trained our volunteers. The program took off right away. All you need are eight or ten volunteers who are willing to commit. Two, three or four or sometimes all eight volunteers might be there. The homeless are ever present, and they want to do it. You often find the people who want to help them—through philanthropic organizations, churches or whatever—people who feed them, give them clothes, maybe a job, all of the essentials. These are all important things. But rarely are they given canvas, paints and brushes. We bring in high-quality brushes and paints and say: ‘Here, express yourself. Express how you feel.’ They haven’t had that opportunity to do that since they were kids. And let me tell you, it is incredible what comes out of that. We have had some people who have completely turned their lives around, I mean completely turned around, from being shut down completely…homeless people who just wouldn’t talk to anybody. Now they are very verbal, they interact in society, not just with homeless people, but with people outside the homeless community, and they are making money by selling their paintings. We have a weekly Saturday market and an annual show where we sell their paintings. There’s a great homeless program called ArtLifting in Boston which has a website where you can go and buy the work of homeless artists. We launched an Instagram feed where they can sell their paintings online. I learned right away that when you start thinking you are going to help someone else, the reality is it might change you a lot more than it changes them. Driving down the street, instead of avoiding that homeless person walking along, you might say, “Oh, that’s Red! I know him. He was in the program yesterday.” And you wave to him and he waves back and suddenly you are part of a community you previously were blind to. And that ripples out so fast to all kinds of human contact, being connected in ways we just don’t experience in our regular life.
McElhinney: How have you developed such a devotion to community service? What motivated you to become so engaged?
Bartlett: My youngest son, Elliott, passed away two years ago. I was stuck at a point where I was either going to lay in a ditch and do nothing or I was going to do something where people needed me to show up. That’s when I got wholeheartedly behind these programs. A lot of them had been hypothetical up to that point. Treacy Ziegler, an artist we both know, has run an art-in-prisons program in Philadelphia for twenty years. She is going to come down and train our volunteers how to work with inmates at the Muscogee County jail, which is an all-male prison. Volunteers must be male and we have several students from Columbus State University who are on board for that.
McElhinney: Are any of the Center’s volunteers working as interns? While it is admirable to do things out of the goodness of one’s heart, students in pursuit of degrees in art education or psychology might like to receive academic credit from their work to support their progress toward a degree.
Bartlett: There will be for-credit programs. We do have interns who are already involved with the “Home Is Where the Art Is” and “Art Makes You Smart” programs. What it does is it gets me involved, and the volunteers involved, in aspects of the strata of life in a small community. The great thing is it is a small community so we have local support.
McElhinney: Tell us about the programs the Center was delivering to disabled veterans.
Bartlett: The U.S. Army School of Americas at Fort Benning had been created to train the Contras. For years I’ve worked with Father Roy Bourgeois and the School of Americas Watch to close down the School of Americas. Quakers and other activists came from all over the country. (The school has now changed its name from SOA to WHINSEC: Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.) As it turns out, we work with soldiers suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder through WHINSEC. We will be working with them until the end of the year. These programs have gotten me into parts of the community I would have never gone before. Until you interface with others, there is no way to understand them. This is where growth is happening. It’s a way of operating so that everything you do is for the good of the whole system. We’re trying to interface with all strata within the whole community. It doesn’t take long for it to go from being just a helping hand to total involvement. I believe in the power of art to transform lives, something I discovered from reading The Re-enchantment of Art by my good friend Suzie Gablik. I can be in my studio all day, but in the morning for a couple of hours I can go work with the homeless, or with kids, or prisoners, or the disabled in the psych programs. It’s a living thing...connecting with other people who are different than you, so that society becomes a healthy, living, breathing organism again.
McElhinney: Would you encourage other artists with sufficient means to embark on missions of philanthropy?
Bartlett: I would hope that the model that we’re setting up in Georgia would be something that would spread, even if one just wanted to try having an art-in-schools program in their community, or art for the homeless. We want to be able to serve as a pilot program for other communities and eventually franchise it. If you want to have this in [your] community, here’s the model. Come see how it works and you can take it to your community. We have a long-range vision for the Center. A library is being planned, as is an art archive. I have decided to donate a number of my paintings, along with the majority of my sketchbooks as a way to create an archive of journals. There are a lot of figurative and representational painters out there who do great work in sketchbooks and journals that are not going to wind up in the National Archives, nor in a museum. We could create archives to house their work, and have rotating shows featuring these sketchbooks and hopefully, the paintings that they were studies for. We’ll digitize everything so it will all be accessible online. We maintain an office to facilitate any needs that anyone has when they want to come and learn what we’re doing here. David Houston is the first director of the Center, after being the first chief curator at Crystal Bridges. So the idea is growing. That’s the great thing about this whole process. You start with a little seed of an idea, and a then all of a sudden it takes hold and takes a much broader scope. The same has happened in the outreach aspect of the programs. We are all very excited about the future. It’s funny that my name is on the Center, but I don’t have an official title like CEO or chairman of the board. They were looking for a name to put on it—the Scarboroughs planted the seed—I was brought into it from behind. It makes sense on some level, but at the same time I feel too young to have something named after me because I’m still very active in making my paintings. Andrew Wyeth always told me: “Keep yourself free. The most important thing is to keep yourself free.”
1. Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene and Daniel H. Bowen, “Art Makes You Smart,” The New York Times, November 24, 2013, SR12.