The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — a world-class art collection in Bentonville, Ark., founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton — opens Friday, 11-11-11. Two months ago, in one of the first reviews of the museum, our critic Phil Kennicott took a look at what sort of legacy a Wal-Mart fortune could buy:
• A museum designed by blue-chip institutional architect Moshe Safdie, who connects the gallery spaces with a series of “bridges“ over ponds built into the forest site of the 201,000-square foot building. Kennicott was not a fan: “There is a substantial “wow” factor to the building, but no one would ever call it refined, or meticulous or perfectly wrought. Safdie’s design is often sloppy, with elements that feel provisional, afterthoughts or improvisations,” he wrote.
• An art collection that is daring for the presumably conservative local audience. Crystal Bridges includes a Nick Cave “Soundsuit,” a wearable sculpture made of found objects, hair, and craft materials. At the same time, there’s plenty of crowd-pleasing Norman Rockwell works, portraits of George Washington, and Warhol. “Its leaders profess no squeamishness about embracing all aspects of the canon, including the experimental and the controversial,” wrote Kennicott.
At the same time, the museum doesn’t want to turn its audience off. Kennicott says the museum is keenly aware of how contemporary art should be packaged for visitors who may not be museum-savvy. “Even the art that might be considered edgy is often linked to local figures (a photographic portrait of Bill Clinton), ideas or preoccupations (landscape and hunting). Much of it is topical, taking up environmental or racial issues, and there is a strongly individualist ethos celebrated in what some audiences might find the weirdness of new work: “Be an Original” is a tagline on the museum’s Web site, as well as on the billboard with the Nick Cave Soundsuit,” wrote Kennicott. Admission is free thanks to a massive grant from Wal-Mart, and the museum site also offers hiking and biking trails.
• A weighty influence on the American art scene and market. An $800 million endowment from the Walton Family Foundation makes Crystal Bridges one of the wealthiest museums in the country, and it has been using its heft to amass a collection that rivals the top museums in New York. Says Kennicott: “It has aggressively pursued some of the most prized and iconic pieces of American art to come on the market in the past five years, leading some observers to detect an impact on prices that they call the “Walton effect.”
However: “The museum’s wealth, and its connection to the Wal-Mart fortune, has also led to a remarkable amount of hostility in art world circles, where there is an assumption that it is too rich, too conservative and too reflexively American in its focus to be a serious new player.”
• An opportunity to turn a small town into a major cultural outpost. “It is unprecedented what she is doing,” says Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the closest major art museum to Bentonville. Zugazagoitia says his museum expects to benefit in a spike of visitors as patrons drawn to Crystal Bridges explore regional options. “I hope for a Bilbao effect” in Bentonville, he says, referring to the Guggenheim outpost that opened in Spain in 1997, transforming a little-known Basque city into a major cultural hub. Will Bentonville be next?