A Water Bar serving water and stories from Northwestern Arkansas.

When we began to make plans to bring our Water Bar project to Crystal Bridges, we knew we would need the right partners to make it happen. We developed the project in our home state of Minnesota. Over time we've learned a lot about water and related issues on the upper Mississippi River, but knew very little about the waters of Northwest Arkansas.

Authentic connection to place and people is critical to our work. In other words, a "drag and drop approach" that brings an engaged artistic project “as is” and expects it to work the same in a new context would not suffice. We knew we'd need to make a connection with people who already had a deep commitment to the waters of Northwest Arkansas and their own reasons for engaging with a broader audience.

Crystal Bridges curator Chad Alligood immediately understood our need to find a water resource partner, and when we traveled to Arkansas for the first time in July, he introduced us to Dr. Delia Haak at the Illinois River Watershed Partnership.

At first, our goal was simply to learn as much as we could about the Illinois River Watershed, but when we met Delia, we immediately knew that IRWP was the right collaborator for the Water Bar project. Not only did IRWP’s education and advocacy mission align with our artistic goals, the partnership’s approach to building broad and inclusive coalitions around shared resources and concerns really resonated with us as artist-activists.

In our work we try to open space for people to bring themselves into conversations with others, regardless of their prior knowledge or beliefs about a given topic or issue. We all have things to learn, and we all have experiences and knowledge to share. We’ve found that spaces which welcome and value this exchange of knowledge and curiosity—and the possible tensions and insights it generates—are actually quite rare. Yet these kinds of discursive and democratic spaces can open up important public conversations, and can help us to learn about the world through the experiences of other people.

What might happen if a space like this could be opened inside an art museum, where people may not expect to talk about environmental issues at all?

We were thrilled that IRWP not only decided to partner with us on the project, but committed significant financial and human resources to the hiring, training, management, and compensation of eight dedicated Water Bar interns. This incredible contribution to the project would come to shape Water Bar in profound and surprising ways. IRWP was also crucial in helping us find the three waters the bar would eventually serve to the public.

We considered serving everything from private well water to locally bottled waters like Ozarka or Mountain Valley Spring, and even considered serving untreated water from Crystal Spring, an artesian spring on museum grounds (as well as the namesake of Crystal Bridges). Due to health and safety codes we had to rule out untreated spring or well water, and so decided to highlight public water. We eventually decided upon three municipal tap waters from the area: Beaver Water District (a surface water sourced from nearby Beaver Lake serving 400,000 people in the area), Siloam Springs (a surface water sourced from the Illinois River served to just under 16,000 people), and Sulphur Springs (a ground water – that tastes nothing like sulphur – sourced from an artesian well serving just over 500 people).

After we met in July, we worked with IRWP to craft a job description that went out to local universities and community colleges. From a pool of applicants, eight interns were interviewed and hired. They each brought their own experiences with them, which included a purposefully diverse set of educational backgrounds: natural resource science, environmental law, biological engineering, sustainable marketing, and landscape architecture, to name a few.

This group of interns – or as we’ve come to know them, Water Bar "Water Tenders" – became the most important element of this evolving project. When we met them all for the first time in September, we knew this was going to be a much more interesting and impactful project than we’d ever expected. Without exception they came to the table with curiosity, open minds, and interesting stories to share. We spent two days getting to know one another. We helped them understand our creative practice, and where it fits within the larger art world, as well as within the context of the State of the Art exhibition. Together we visited our three water sources to gather our first batch of waters to serve to the public. After a whirlwind opening weekend, we essentially left the project in their hands, staying in touch and helping however we could from our home in Minnesota.

Letting go of a project and watching it unfold is a difficult thing for anyone to do. You have to be prepared for things to move in directions you cannot plan for or control. We decided early on to embrace this approach to Water Bar, hold it lightly ourselves, and encourage the IRWP Water Tenders to shape the project from the ground up. This meant introducing information and ideas they found relevant, as well as new processes for engaging visitors to the bar.

And the visitors have been many! In an average week, Water Tenders put in a combined 50+ hours to pour 60 gallons of water into 5,158 glasses and serve 1,716 visitors. In five months, Water Bar served over 20,0000.

While these numbers are pretty amazing, it is the human-to-human interactions that are really important to us in this project. Not long after opening, the Water Bar Specialists observed patterns in the ways people were approaching Water Bar. Visitors had questions about water, which we’d all expected; But they also had fascinating stories, ideas, and opinions to share. And when they shared those stories, the Water Tenders learned a lot about how to talk to people about scientific topics in ways that connect with their lives. The Water Tenders decided they’d like to try to document those stories, and so we created a simple prompt for visitors to share a memory of water. 

The results of this project include an archive of stories shared by visitors from across the United States, a collective journal kept by the Water Tenders, and the professional and personal experiences that were had by the students who took part in the project, who we stay in touch with today though social media.