FISHTAIL, Mont. — At the end of a 90-minute drive from Billings, Mont., through rolling ranchland grazed by cattle and sheep, Tippet Rise materializes like Oz’s Emerald City. North America’s newest and, at 10,260 acres, most expansive art center is buttressed to the south by the snowcapped Beartooth Mountains. In all other directions, the land crests and falls in grassy waves that ripple toward the Bighorn, Musselshell, and Yellowstone rivers and, beyond them, more mountains.
This windblown country has long been a popular destination for hunters and anglers, and although it is strikingly beautiful in that heart-wrenching way the West’s loneliest places often are, it never seemed a likely destination for arts lovers. That is, until this June when Tippet Rise opened to the public, offering seven weeks of world-class music performances as well as tours, by carbon-neutral electric van, of its surreally vast sculpture “garden.”
The center is “anchored in the belief that art, music, and nature are linked in the human experience.” Mammoth outdoor sculptures punctuate the land’s great vistas and nestle into coulees and draws. The structures double as performance spaces when the weather will cooperate. When it won’t, there’s the Olivier Music Barn, a gem of a concert hall with seating for an audience of just 150. Its obsessively designed acoustics, inspired by England’s Snape Concert Hall, result in a clear and enveloping sound on the day I hear Matthew Haimovitz and the Dover String Quartet perform Schubert’s transcendent “String Quintet in C major.” The inaugural season also featured a piano recital series that included Russia’s Nikolai Demidenko in a rare US performance, England’s Stephen Hough and Tchaikovsky piano competition laureates George Li and Lucas Debargue. A season highlight was the world premiere of a Tippet Rise-commissioned vocal work by prominent Spanish composer Antón García Abril performed at Domo, one of three sculptural structures designed by the composer’s son, also named Antón García-Abril, principal architect for cutting-edge firm Ensamble Studio. (Wind and rain caused the concert to be moved to the music barn.)
At 16 feet high and 98 feet wide, Domo was cast on site with reinforced concrete in an impressive feat of engineering. The resulting structure resembles an inverted mountain range floating just above the land. On a distant ridgeline, “Beethoven’s Quartet,” by Mark di Suvero, is made of iron and steel and can be played with a rubber mallet, the sounds reverberating across the grassy folds of land that surround it. The collection also includes works by Stephen Talasnik and Patrick Dougherty as well as the temporary installation of two major pieces by Alexander Calder, on loan from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Tippet Rise was founded by Cathy and Peter Halstead. Cathy’s father, Sidney Frank, earned his fortune by developing and marketing liquor. Renowned for his successes, he was also known for the large sums of money he gave away — an ethic he passed along to his daughter. Peter Halstead comes from a long line of oil and banking executives; his family was also philanthropic. Today, both Cathy and Peter are trustees of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, which makes more than 90 grants annually to charities in the United States and England. Friends since they were 16, married 36 years, the two have spent their lives immersed in music and the arts. Cathy is an abstract painter who has shown around the world; Peter is a classical pianist and a poet and, he tells me, he and Cathy have traveled the world together “in search of extraordinary artistic experiences.” Places like France’s Fondation Maeght and the Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley helped to shape their aesthetic, values, and appreciation and, with time, a vision began to take shape. Thinking of their grandchildren’s generation, the couple realized that they wanted to create a place that celebrated art and music on a grand scale and on a grand landscape. “We’ve been dreaming of Tippet Rise most of our lives,” Cathy tells me.
They traveled the world looking for property. And then a friend suggested Montana. “The moment we stepped on this land,” Peter says, “we knew it was the place. It was magnetic, irresistible.” An avid mountaineer who has climbed in the Alps and the Himalayas, Peter felt they’d found “the Switzerland of America. Gothic, druidic mountains — a place of ancient power that will inspire more great art,” he says. “One of stunning silence and solitude where the audience will feel close to the composer, close to the player, immersed in their worlds.”
The couple bought six ranches to create Tippet Rise. And then they hired staff to help materialize their vision, including Christopher O’Riley, a renowned pianist and host of National Public Radio’s “From the Top,” as music director for the inaugural season. To lead the center’s design, they hired Arup, a New York engineering firm that specializes in concert halls. Arup assigned acoustician Alban Bassuet to manage the project. Born in France, Bassuet has designed concert halls and performance spaces around the world.
Bassuet says the Halsteads’ vision was compelling. “They wanted to build a place where people could leave behind the crowds of the concert halls and museums and experience art intimately, privately, in the wilds of nature,” he tells me. And so he set to work, orchestrating what would be a long and arduous planning process. By all accounts, Bassuet and his colleagues succeeded — perhaps too well: Tickets for this season’s concerts cost just $10, but they sold out almost as soon as they were released in May. Admission to tour the sculptures is free, but because it is limited to 100 people a day, it can be difficult to gain entry.
But once audiences and artists arrive at the center, says O’Riley, there is little else they need. “I’d much rather be at Tippet Rise than anywhere else in the world,” he tells me. “As artists, we have everything we need here: the best pianos on earth, a world-class concert hall, great food, extraordinarily beautiful surroundings, appreciative audiences. No one can believe it when they arrive. It’s a wonderful artistic environment. My jaw drops daily.”
If You Go . . .
Tippet Rise Art Center is located outside of Fishtail, Mont., south of Interstate 90 between Billings and Bozeman. To make reservations or to learn more about the Center, visit tippetrise.org.Alexis Marie Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.