An eccentric amalgam of Thomas the Tank Engine and the National Gallery of Art, Artrain USA just rolled in.
Sure, Thomas is a locomotive and Artrain doesn't actually have one -- its five cars hitch to any rig willing to pull it. And yes, the National Gallery holds a top-notch collection of masterworks and Artrain doesn't own a single painting. Yet, in Artrain's 34-year history, the mobile museum has hosted quality adult- and kid-friendly exhibitions, hauling works by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg into station yards nationwide. Stations in towns such as Cotter, Ark., and Forest, Miss.
Late last week, Artrain arrived in Manassas, the 18th stop on the train's 2005 East Coast tour. On board: "Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture," a show of contemporary painting, sculpture, photography and multimedia works created by Native American artists. Curated by Joanna Bigfeather, the former director of Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, the exhibit will visit 120 towns by the time its tour ends in 2007. "Native Views" opens to the public today and remains on view through Sunday.
Stationed behind City Hall on a stretch of unused track, Artrain could pass for any other silver passenger box.
"Native Views" fills the exhibition spaces with a surprisingly savvy selection of contemporary artwork by 54 artists. Though some purely decorative objects are on hand, the bulk of the show explores the influence of pop culture and technology on Native American artmaking. Bigfeather picked living artists reconciling afternoons spent at the powwow and the Wal-Mart.
"I expected to see stuffy traditionalistic stuff, something white people would know," said Nick Redwing Pinn while taking in the show last Sunday. A Manassas resident and descendant of the Buffalo Ridge Cherokee and Monacan tribes, Pinn was involved in the Native American art scene on the West Coast in the 1970s and recognized several of the artists in the show. "I know some of these people," he said.
Paintings such as Judith Lowry's "Road Kill Warrior: Last of His Tribe" show how today's Nike-clad teens assemble gear for the powwow: by incorporating whatever they find -- in this case, feathers stolen from a roadside casualty -- into their regalia. Marcus Amerman transforms an Ikea baby backpack into a 21st-century papoose. And Gerald Clarke incorporates found Native American statuary and a KFC bucket to explore modern-day Native American spirituality -- or lack thereof.
The artists in "Native Views" aren't so different from the Artrain folks, really: They both adapt long-standing traditions to address present-day concerns. Artrain transformed rail cars into roving cultural ambassadors to meet the needs of culture-strapped Americans.
Train enthusiasts -- the museum attracts quite a few -- will recognize these stainless steel vehicles as Budd Co. cars built in the late 1940s. Though renovated to house professional exhibition facilities, Artrain's vintage equipment prevents visits to some big-city stations, including the District's Union Station, which can no longer accommodate it. (The problem has to do with generators attached to the undercarriage of the cars and track clearance at the station platforms.)
Skipping a big city like Washington suits Artrain's mission just fine. Founded in 1971 by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, Artrain was born to transport art to the people of Smalltown, USA. Early on, train itineraries were restricted to Michigan. Later, when the organization went national, some of the country's smallest towns began welcoming this cultural ambassador of the rails. Since its inception, Artrain has tallied 3 million visitors and about 800 stops. The train averages 75,000 to 100,000 visitors a year.
"Artrain was always intended as a catalyst to stimulate growth of local arts agencies," says Artrain President and CEO Debra Polich. "It's an enormous project to put on and a tremendous confidence builder [for these communities]."
Every stop requires extensive cooperation with sponsoring organizations and demands specific siting, volunteers and staff housing -- not to mention the kindness of passing trains to haul the thing. The handbook Artrain distributes to towns considering a visit details all the specifications. The document is 86 pages long.
"It's a logistical circus to get this train into the communities we visit," says train staffer Carl Johnson. "Sometimes details are being worked out as we pull in."
Johnson is one of seven traveling staff members who function alternately as onboard docents, retail managers, security and maintenance personnel. Most are in their twenties and have the kind of freedom that allows someone to live like a nomad for a year. Johnson, 27, joined in January after ending a gig on an organic farm. Tour manager Courtney Brouwer, 29, climbed aboard a year and a half ago after finishing a museum studies degree at New York University.
Staffers oversee three gallery cars kitted out with exposed ductwork, climate control monitors, security systems, track lighting and sculpture and painting vitrines -- much the same facilities as any other museum. And like a visit to its stationary cousins, every Artrain experience culminates in the gift shop. There are posters, original artwork and books. There are even model trains for $125 a pop.
Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture on board Artrain, parked behind City Hall, 9027 Main St., Manassas, through Sunday. Hours: Thursday to Saturday, noon-7 p.m., Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Admission is free. Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express serve the Manassas Depot. 703-792-7275.