Guests to Tippet Rise Art Center take in the views at Inverted Portal, a sculpture by Ensamble Studios. Credit: Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise

FISHTAIL — On an emerald-blue day in May on the campus of Tippet Rise Art Center, Gabby Moldovan gathered elementary school children in a circle to write poetry as part of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ outreach program. The organization has been hosting student workshops on Shakespearian themes since Tippet Rise first opened in 2016 outside of this small town in south-central Montana.

“When kids are in their own schools, they feel so comfortable,” said Moldovan. “When it’s someplace like this, it feels like something special to them — and to us. They are going to remember it. It’s going to stick out in their brains in a different way.”

Tippet Rise, situated on 12,500 acres in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains, includes a working ranch, performing arts center and outdoor sculpture park with 13.25 miles of hiking and biking trails. A world-class recording facility and performance hall — built in the style of a barn — hosts artists from across the globe.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is just one of many organizations that access the campus or benefit from financial grants offered by Tippet Rise. The confluence of art, architecture, music, education and landscape was co-founded by Peter and Cathy Halstead. 

“Experiencing art and music outdoors has been a long-held passion of ours, and creating Tippet Rise Art Center was our way of sharing this joy with others,” the Halsteads wrote in a joint statement. “We have long felt that both music and art feel better outside. There is a sense of magic that nature adds to the experience.” 

The Escher String Quartet performs at Domo by Ensamble Studios on August 10, 2019. Credit: Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise

The Halsteads, who are artists themselves (Cathy is an abstract painter and Peter is a poet, pianist, photographer and novelist), were inspired to found Tippet Rise after visiting sculpture parks in New York, Demark, England and France, and were also influenced by the Vail and Aspen music festivals — “all of which also celebrate music, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and nature,” they wrote. Both came from philanthropic families generous toward the arts.

The couple, who have known one another since they were 16, said when they first saw the ranch, “it cried out for something unique, for something that didn’t exist yet.” The vast Montana sky, rolling grass and mountains in the distance proved an exceptional canvas to enact their longtime vision. 

“We are so fortunate that Tippet Rise exists in one of the most scenic places in the world, and that our music season takes place at such a beautiful time of year during the late summer, allowing us to comfortably gather outdoors surrounded by nature,” they wrote. 

In 2020, in response to the global pandemic, the Halsteads canceled the fifth summer season at Tippet Rise. Yet, as the pandemic dragged on, sculpture parks and outdoor art experiences proved to be hugely important. In 2021, Tippet Rise reopened for hiking and biking tours only, but even with limited access, the sculpture park and performing arts center saw robust visitation.

“It is a really challenging balance. We put ourselves in a position where we aren’t able to just open our doors freely and welcome everyone. If we did that, the experiences that people have would be completely different.”

Pete Hinmon, Tippet Rise co-director

“The spotlight was really shown onto outdoor art and outdoor exhibitions during COVID,” said Pete Hinmon, co-director of Tippet Rise. “What I was surprised about was the level of appreciation. People really tell you what it means to come to Tippet Rise.”

Tippet Rise reopens for the season June 10, and live music will return to the facility along with van tours, serving approximately 300 people a day. The five-week music season begins Aug. 26, featuring 20 international artists as well as several world premieres of performances commissioned by Tippet Rise.

Tickets to the concerts are available each year by lottery, and those tickets have already been doled out for this year. All hiking, biking and sculpture tours are also sold out. 

Upon opening in 2016, the park featured nine outdoor art installations, and in 2019, “Xylem,” an immense wooden pavilion created by internationally renowned architect Francis Kéré, was added. This season, several additional sculptures will be installed, including a third steel installation by Mark di Suvero titled “Whale’s Cry,” and “Iron Tree” by contemporary artist, documentarian and activist Ai Weiwei. As well, a series of works by Ensamble Studio titled “Folds” will add artistic concrete seats, cast from draped canvas, across the campus and a permanent stage under “Domo,” a 98-foot-long creation that is also used to host live performances. “Daydreams,” an ephemeral sculpture by Patrick Dougherty, will also be reconstructed around an existing house on the property. 

A 2019 performance by Katie Hyun, violin, Gabriel Cabezas, cello, and Aristo Sham, piano, in The Olivier Music Barn on the campus of Tippet Rise Art Center. Credit: Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise

On average, 60% of visitors to Tippet Rise are from Montana, and the rest make up a global audience, according to Hinmon. The popularity of Tippet Rise places the organization in a conundrum: either limit visitation in order for people to have a more private experience, or allow more visitation and run the risk of inundating guests.  

“It is a really challenging balance,” Hinmon acknowledged. “We put ourselves in a position where we aren’t able to just open our doors freely and welcome everyone. If we did that, the experiences that people have would be completely different.”

Lindsay Hinmon, who co-directs the facility with her husband, said the organization has responded by extending the season from June to September this year and offering additional hiking and biking spaces while balancing indoor and outdoor concerts.

“We like to promote small, intimate experiences,” she said. “This year, we are experimenting in bringing more music outside, which we are excited about.”

“We love the intimacy at Tippet Rise,” Pete Hinmon added. “For us, that’s smaller numbers of people per day, but that does make for the most powerful experiences for those people.” 

Access to Tippet Rise requires a reservation,though all slots were claimed by early June. This season there were 75 hiking and biking slots available daily, as well as 25 seats a day for the sculpture van tours. 

Guests to Tippet Rise Art Center bike along as Inverted Portal by Ensamble Studios looms in the background. Credit: Erik Petersen, courtesy Tippet Rise

“We didn’t want to launch a full-fledged van tour operation, hire all the drivers, and have to respond to a new [virus] variant, and people lose their jobs,” Pete Hinmon said. “We try to find a happy middle ground.”

This season, Tippet Rise’s workforce will include a dozen seasonal employees as well as the 18 full-time employees who work year-round. Tippet Rise also draws from a volunteer base of approximately 30 people. 

For the Halsteds, COVID-19 has not shifted their focus so much as expanded it. The organization responded to the shutdown by producing online content and launching a “Tippet Rise at Home” series that presents streams of past concerts with Zoom discussions. They have also amassed a video library and collection of downloadable recordings from concerts. 

“The effects of the pandemic also encouraged us to find new ways to collaborate with other organizations and artists, something we very much hope to continue in the future,” the Halsteads wrote.  

Tippet Rise also sends employees into schools across Montana and northern Wyoming.

“The Tippet Rise outreach is vast,” Lindsey Hinmon added. “We love for kids to come out here as much as possible, but sometimes it’s easier to be able to go to the schools and introduce Tippet Rise and talk about art.” 

“Every summer, but especially this year after so much loss, anxiety, and tragedy, we hope visitors will find their experience at Tippet Rise to be meaningful and joyful,” they said. 

Tickets for concerts that become available through cancellations are offered during the week of each the concert at tippetrise.org. There is a waitlist for hiking, biking, or van tours, and guests can be added to the list by emailing info@tippetrise.org with preferred dates.

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Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a Montana-based arts journalist and co-host of "Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains" on Yellowstone Public Radio. She's worked in the newspaper and publishing industry since 2004, most recently for the Billings Gazette as an arts and entertainment journalist. She is also the co-founder of Young Poets, a nonprofit teaching poetry in regional elementary schools and winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Award for Literacy.