PHOENIX — Two men stepped out of a rental car here recently and walked up to a modest ranch-style house with a cat and a grapefruit tree in the yard, worried that the homeowner might mistake them for missionaries or salesmen.
But they were neither. They were representatives of one of the wealthiest art patrons in the world, Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress and founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. And they had come all the way from there to the door of a 51-year-old local painter, Monica Aissa Martinez, hoping to discover nothing less than genuine, unheralded American art talent.
The men, Don Bacigalupi, the museum's president, and Chad Alligood, a curator, crowded into the artist's small studio off her kitchen and quickly admired her work, a mix of Southwestern mysticism and anatomical precision that looked something like X-ray images as painted by Gustav Klimt. Then they bade her goodbye and hopped back into the car. They had reason to hurry: They had already logged 50,000 miles visiting 500 artists in 30 states, and they had almost 500 more artists to go.
The goal of their unusual art hunt — an old-fashioned, Jack Kerouac-like canvass of the country — is to find 100 under-recognized artists, culled from a list of more than 10,000, to feature in September in an ambitious show that will represent Walton's first attempt to plant her institution's flag firmly in the world of contemporary art.
Her museum, which has drawn more than 1 million visitors since opening in 2011, is a 21st century version of Gilded Age collections like those amassed by Henry Clay Frick in New York and Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. But Crystal Bridges is in a small city in the Ozarks, the first museum of its size to open between the coasts in more than a generation.
And so the show will inevitably be seen as a kind of heartland response to the Whitney Biennial, the much-argued-about barometer of the country's art that has helped to bring to prominence artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons.
Hoping to make their own discoveries of that caliber, Walton's emissaries have looked high and low, sometimes literally. During a trip to Portland, Ore., Bacigalupi was invited to an artist's dark basement where she showed him a sculpture resembling a coffin and he momentarily feared for his safety. He and Alligood, a Harvard-trained curator who grew up in rural Georgia, have ventured to places so small the GPS has given up.
They have seen art on a goat farm, in a soap factory, in a defunct pie factory. They interviewed one artist they were fairly sure was high on cocaine and another who was profoundly stoned.
"There have been times over the past few months," said Bacigalupi, a Brooklyn-born contemporary art specialist, "when I wake up and literally have no idea what city I'm in."
While the Whitney many years ago broadened its focus beyond the United States, Crystal Bridges is building its show not only around the curators' road trip but also against the all-American backdrop of the museum's growing collection by artists like Sargent, O'Keeffe, Rockwell and Pollock.
Jennifer Doyle, an English professor and contemporary art specialist at the University of California at Riverside, said she saw the idea as a challenge by a nonurban museum to the art-world dominance of New York and Los Angeles. Bentonville has a population of 38,000, smaller than the average weekly attendance at the Museum of Modern Art.
"If you want to assert your own set of cultural values, then this seems like a grandly ambitious scheme to try to do that," Doyle said. "It's almost like a census."
She added: "Personally I wish it wasn't Wal-Mart money that was doing this. But I guess it would be the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel critique to point out that Wal-Mart is often blamed for hurting the sorts of places —small-town, middle-class America — where they're now looking for this kind of individual expression."
Bacigalupi said Wal-Mart rarely came up in discussions with artists, though one, in Ohio, was wary of showing them a work in which a miniature Wal-Mart truck was foundering in an oil spill — his sculptural metaphor for the recession. But Bacigalupi reassured him it was "the kind of adventurous work we're looking for."
While Wal-Mart and its subsidiary Sam's Club have contributed to make admission to the exhibition free, Bacigalupi stressed that the company had no involvement in shaping the show.
The curators have tried to stay away from commercial galleries, hoping for undiscovered artists. They compiled their list of prospective artists by talking to other curators, museum officials, local art leaders and established artists.
"For a lot of artists, this is the first time they've ever been visited by an art professional, by a museum curator," Alligood said, adding that for all the artists visited in person, he and Bacigalupi have interviewed more by Skype, phone and email.