BENTONVILLE, Ark. — On Interstate 540 near Bentonville, a billboard shows what appears to be a wild circus costume, or an outlandish party dress for someone who stands about eight feet tall. It is a Soundsuit, a work by the contemporary African American artist Nick Cave, famous for his distinctive fabric sculptures covered in strange geegaws and decorative exotica.
It is also an advertisement for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the most-talked-about new museum in the United States in a generation. Opening Nov. 11 in the corporate home town of Wal-Mart and a bedrock of Middle America, the museum has ruffled feathers, challenged stereotypes and raised expectations as this country’s newest major cultural institution. That it is announcing its debut to a presumably conservative local audience not with a classic Western landscape, or a meticulous portrait of a Founding Father, but with a work of contemporary sculpture, is a sign of its larger cultural ambition.
“Going against type is a big part of it,” says Crystal Bridges Executive Director Don Bacigalupi, who has been helping the fledgling museum beef up its contemporary art collection. As the museum prepares for a deluge of foreign and national media coverage, it’s easy to anticipate the ready-made story line: The oddity of a world-class art museum rising in Arkansas, with reflexive condescension about its focus on American art and its origins in the Wal-Mart corporate fortune.
But as workers put the finishing touches on the new building and curators oversaw the installation of art collected over decades by founder Alice L. Walton, a visit to the museum made it clear that Crystal Bridges intends to be taken seriously well beyond northwest Arkansas. It has not only gathered a synoptic view of American art, it will feature contemporary galleries and an extensive library, and its leaders profess no squeamishness about embracing all aspects of the canon, including the experimental and the controversial.
Endowed by the Walton Family Foundation with $800 million, Crystal Bridges instantly joins the ranks of the richest museums in this country, and it has been using its extraordinary resources to assemble a collection of American art that may rival in quality, if not quantity, anything available to museum visitors in New York, Washington, Los Angeles or Chicago. 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.”
The museum, designed by blue-chip institutional architect Moshe Safdie and nestled in a thickly forested basin near the main square of Bentonville, is Walton’s legacy project. Walton, 61, is the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who died in 1992. She is also “media shy,” a major contributor to Republican political candidates, a horse lover and, in the rare interviews she has given over the years, unabashedly patriotic and sentimentally devoted to the rolling Arkansas landscape she grew up in. Married and divorced once, she lives on an immense ranch in Texas and has been known to bid on art by cellphone while riding one of her beloved horses.