A progressive take
While millionaires and billionaires before her have created museums, Walton’s Crystal Bridges — with its mix of contemporary and classic art, and its origins in the frugal, self-made ethos of the Wal-Mart empire — feels decidedly different from the museums of the Gilded Age, or the boomtown art collections of mid-century Texas. There is no anxiety about the status of American art, no looking to Europe for validation. There’s no embarrassment about the immense fortune that made the museum possible, no old-fashioned cultural money-laundering in the manner of Carnegie or Mellon. Nor is there any worry about whether the art is too conservative or too edgy. It is a mature, serious, relatively progressive museum launched at a time when increasing numbers of people consider themselves socially tolerant and fiscally conservative. It is a museum for people who are as comfortable with art as social experiment and provocation, as they are with untrammeled, winner-takes-all capitalism.
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. The leaders of Crystal Bridges acknowledge the grumbling, mostly detectable in the blogosphere, but also aired publicly as it became clear that a 2005 Arkansas law specifically designed to exempt the museum from taxes could cost taxpayers millions of dollars of lost revenue. They point out that Crystal Bridges is hardly unprecedented, that virtually all of this country’s museums began with a collection, and a fortune, assembled by a wealthy art-loving member of the nouveax riches.
The museum, when it opens, will be free to the public (thanks to a $20 million gift from Wal-Mart), with a vigorous public education program and a serious scholarly and curatorial agenda. Crystal Bridges is doing everything right, by the standards of contemporary museum practice. And while it is a beneficiary of Walton’s largess, it is also an independent nonprofit and not a Wal-Mart proxy.
“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. He says Crystal Bridges is already a good neighbor, planning collaborations with his museum.
As Crystal Bridges has taken shape, hired respected staff from other major collections, and revealed details of its collection and education programs, opinion has shifted. Few museum professionals will speak openly about their initial suspicions and any lingering resentment about the impact of Crystal Bridges on the art market.