Thomas Hart Benton's Final Gift

benton.jpg

Thomas Hart Benton's The Sources of Country Music portrays 17 nearly life-sized figures and illustrates the various cultural influences on country music, including a train, a steamboat, a black banjo player, country fiddlers and dulcimer players, hymn singers and square dancers. The painting memorializes entertainer Tex Ritter as the singing cowboy on the right. Image provided by The Country Music Foundation

1975Artist Thomas Hart Benton was reviewing his completed work illustrating the origins of country music when he died of heart failure on January 19, 1975. The colorful six-by-ten foot mural was commissioned by Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with support from the Arts Endowment. "Our board was reluctant at first to enter into a fine arts commission," says Bill Ivey, former Executive Director of the Country Music Foundation. "The NEA grant was critical to making it happen. The Endowment's willingness to put in money was a sign this was a project with real value." Ivey, who later became the NEA's Chairman, says the painting developed into the main point of contact between the museum and the arts community. The mural and Benton's original sketches have toured frequently to a wide variety of venues, from the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum to a Nashville auto factory cafeteria, where live country music was provided to accompany the painting during meal breaks. The project also helped shift the museum's focus. "It motivated the board and staff to become engaged in the world of visual arts as it relates to country music," Ivey says. That led to other art exhibitions including one showcasing album cover designs. The mural, considered to be one of Benton's finest works, was commissioned for $60,000 with a third of that coming from the Arts Endowment.  Now worth nearly $1 million, it's the museum's greatest asset aside from bricks and mortar, and has even been used to secure loans for other projects. The impact of this single NEA grant continues to resonate within the Country Music Foundation. "It provided the motivation for the organization to delve into the realm of visual art, created a vital connection between the museum and the arts community and produced an increasingly valuable asset," Ivey says. "This is really a grant that keeps on giving."