Artrain -- museum on rails

Some very fine works of art may soon be visiting your local community. Not in the form of a museum show, or a gift to a local institution, but as a train carrying a miniature art museum within itself -- as well as a studio for live art and craft demonstration.

This rolling museum is the only one of its kind in America. It was designed to bring fine art to people who might otherwise never have the chance to see it. It also is intended to foster interest in the arts in smaller communities, to provide an arts education program, and to advise local leaders about cultural opportunities available to them.

It is free to the public, has already visited nearly 500 communities, and has had well over 2 million visitors. In the process it has helped create dozens of community arts councils and has stimulated local sponsorship of the arts. It has even spurred the renovation of train depots and entire downtown areas.

And all this since its inception in 1971.

In May of that year Artrain, which had been created by the Michigan Council for the Arts, started operations throughout Michigan. After two highly successful years in that state, the National Endowment for the Arts took notice of Artrain's activities and made it possible for it to tour in eight Rocky Mountains states.

At that time, the administration of Artrain was give over to the existing nonprofit corporation. It has since toured several other Midwesern states, and is currently in the Ohio-Pennsylvania region. In early October it will return to Michigan for its final tour of the year, and in 1982 will travel to the West Coast and to Alaska.

Arts Endownment chairman Livingston L. Biddle Jr. praised Artrain recently "for 10 years of success in a very special arts outreach," and added, "It reached large audiences, most of whom are visiting a museum for the first time. Of particular significance are the large number of young visitors. Artrain offers them a "first" look, an important step in developing their understanding and appreciation of art."

One of Artrain's most valuable features is its attached studio car. (There are five railroad cars in all: three for exhibitions, one for the studio, and a caboose for the staff.)* This converted box car provides space for both Artrain resident artists to demonstrate their arts or crafts to the public, and for local volunteer artists to give community residents -- most especially children -- some insight into what is involved in the creating of works of art.

According to John J. Hohmann, the project's executive director, "It has been amazing to us over the years how many people have not had direct contact with artists, thus creating more of a distance between artists and their public. Artrain has been a good way for communities to discover what is most unique about themselves."

Exhibitions have grown from being survey in nature to thematic. As with its predecessor, Artrain's curent exhibition includes works selected by its curator, Tom Elliott, and loaned for the tour by museums, art galleries, and artists from the areas visited. "Traditions: The Region/The World" illustrates how international art movements have influenced American art, with particular emphasis on their effect upon regional traditions.

The stars of the current show are Amedeo Modigliani's oil "Portrait of a Woman," George Inness's painting "Saco Valley," George Bellows's lithograph "Billy Sunday," Kaethe Kollwitz's etching "Outbreak," Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's oil "Cafe," and Willem de Kooning's small oil "Brooding Woman."

But there are other excellent works by Hiroshiege, Millet, Loiseau, Despiau, Duveneck, Knaths, Peckstein, Okada -- as well as numerous works by local artists and craftsmen. Also included are "primitive" objects from Africa, New Guinea, the Northwest Coast -- and some very special folkart products.

These include Norwegian and Swedish woodcarvings from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas; Afro- American quilts from Ohio and Michigan; Amish quilts; and Pennsylvania German religious art. There are almost 100 items in the exhibition, every one chosen to illuminate the show's main theme of the impact and universality of tradition. While nothing here could be declared an absolute masterpiece, the quality and range of the art represented is exceptionally high.

The art is well displayed, with clear and adequate labeling, and good lighting. Great care is also taken that enough time is allowed for viewing, that visitors are not rushed through.

Artrain is transported via donated services of the railroads, thus making it accessible to audiences in many locations without transportation cost. In addition, operating funds come from the National Endowment for the Arts, and from state and local councils, corporations, foundations, and individuals.

Artrain begins working with exhibition communities six to nine months before a tour. a statewide workshop dealing with local needs is scheduled, and from that point on, the Artrain field staff works with committees to provide them with technical assistance tailored to their respective goals and needs. This interaction is extensive and includes not only preparatory advice, but also advice for followup activities once Artrain has left the area.

Communities wishing to participate in an Artrain tour are provided with a handbook on how to proceed. Anyone requesting further information may write: Michigan Artrain, 316 Fisher Building, Detroit, Mich. 48202.

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