Another East Coast museum insider puts the art world response to Crystal Bridges more simply: “In a word, they’re jealous.”
Assembling the works
There is plenty to envy at Crystal Bridges. The museum has been methodically building a major collection for more than five years, and though the process has been shrouded in decorous secrecy, news of major acquisitions has leaked. In 2005, Walton reportedly paid $35 million for Asher Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits,” one of the most admired works of 19th-century American art. The acquisition, for more than $8 million, of Gilbert Stuart’s 1797 portrait of George Washington, looking grim and dignified with a turbulent seascape in the background, also made news. Occasionally acquisitions created controversy. In 2006, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia announced that it had agreed to sell Thomas Eakins’s 1875 painting “The Gross Clinic” jointly to Walton’s museum and Washington’s National Gallery of Art, for $68 million.
From Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street to native son Kevin Bacon, the city was outraged, and raced to take advantage of an offer by the university to keep the painting in Philadelphia if someone could muster a matching offer. With the help of local foundations, Philadelphia succeeded, but the incident underscored concerns that Crystal Bridges was plundering the market, and possibly preying on weak institutions eager to unload valuable assets. There were echoes in the criticism of Crystal Bridges of long-standing progressive arguments about Wal-Mart: that it has a destructive impact on local businesses, hollowing out Main Street in favor of the homogenized, big-box store.
Crystal Bridges director Bacigalupi says that the museum isn’t simply flooding the art market with money. It goes after the work it wants, but it hasn’t paid exorbitantly for them. Market observers point out that the high price of American paintings isn’t simply a matter of Walton’s collecting. Bill Gates has been quietly assembling a major collection of American masterworks for years.
“Before there was a Walton effect, there was a Gates effect,” one museum leader says.
That makes it all the more impressive that Crystal Bridges has managed to assemble the collection it has. Even as work continued on several of the building’s pavilions, arrayed around two large ponds set into a leafy, green hillside, the first two galleries of the collection were open in September for docent training. There is a cinematic quality to the art on display, hung on slightly curved walls painted in rich colors. The portraits, landscapes and genera scenes all seem to pop off the wall, and if they have anything in common — besides the starry list of artists represented — it is a tendency to clear, easily legible narratives.