The Bob Ross Experience, a New Interactive Museum, Is Open in Indiana. Can It Calm a Nervous Nation?

The Bob Ross Experience, a New Interactive Museum, Is Open in Indiana. Can It Calm a Nervous Nation?

George Buss, Jr., has been spending a lot of time at the new museum where he works, the Bob Ross Experience, while the country has been in, to say the least, a tense state. And he has found the beloved public television painter’s wisdom timely.
“We opened on October 31, and for the last few weeks you could stand in the space and hear his voice,” he said, referring to a video clip in the galleries of Ross at work, adding a tree to a canvas in progress.
“Bob had a tendency to throw a tree in the middle of a painting just when you thought it was finished,” Buss said. “And it’s usually a frighteningly large tree, and you think it’s going to destroy the painting! But he would say, ‘This is your bravery test.’ That’s what’s been going through my mind. This is our bravery test.”
Buss is vice president of visitor experience at Minnetrista, a 40-acre museum and gardens on the White River in Muncie, Indiana. The new museum is in the very residence that housed WIPB studios, where Ross filmed his show from 1983 to 1994.
Ross’s soothing voice introduced generations to art on his public television show, The Joy of Painting, and he has proved a pop-culture touchstone. The phrase “happy little trees” has become a catchphrase, uttered by millions over the decades. Sixty thousand viewers, whether ironically or not, tuned in to Twitch a few years ago to watch a deceased artist paint “live.” (Twitch is among the supporters of the Bob Ross Experience.)
Even the New York Times saw fit to dispatch a team of reporters to track down more than a thousand of Ross’s paintings in a Virginia warehouse last year. And Ross got a different kind of close-up (ahem) when his paintings were in a show at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago last year, marking his first solo outing in an institutional exhibition, according to the Art Newspaper.
A painting workshop at the Bob Ross Experience. Courtesy Minnetrista.
The opening weekend of the Bob Ross Experience saw the arrival of fans from some 16 states, who dressed up in Afro’d, blue-shirted Halloween costumes, complete with painter’s palettes. Inside, the recording studio has been re-created, down to the orange-and-yellow ‘80s decor and the placement of the cameras and Ross’s easel by WIPB staffers who came back to the building to consult on the project. Ross bobbleheads, toasters, and similar bric-a-brac flesh out the surroundings.
Contributions by locals have also been key to the opening exhibition, “Bob Ross at Home: Artist, Teacher, Friend” (through August 15, 2021), which features a few dozen of the artist’s canvases, many on loan from Muncieans who got the works directly from Ross, or from local charity auctions where he had donated the pieces. Many have never been exhibited before.
But you won’t just be viewing paintings or hanging out on the set at the Bob Ross Experience. You can also sign up for $70 master classes with certified Bob Ross instructors.
Buss audibly sighed when asked what made the painter such a beloved figure, and not, seemingly, with impatience at the obvious question.
“Bob Ross has an incredible, fearless creativity,” he said. “There is a confidence and a positivity that no matter how bad it looks on the canvas, it’s gonna turn out. He takes what looks like a mistake and turns it into something beautiful, and he spends the entire time telling you that what he’s doing is not special, not heroic. It’s something you can do, too. So there’s an empowerment to be as powerful and as fearless as he is.”
Then, Buss turned his attention back to the nation.
“We’re looking at the canvas,” he mused, “saying, ‘What happens next?’”
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