Crystal Bridges in Arkansas: A world-class museum from the land of Wal-Mart

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.

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“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.

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.

Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., sees Walton and her collection in a broader historical perspective.

“Look at the ways that Morgan and Frick were satirized in the British press a hundred years ago,” he says of Pierpont Morgan and Henry Clay Frick, who used their robber-baron wealth to build up major collections of European cultural treasure, causing heartburn and eliciting scorn in Europe at the time. “Any new player who goes into the marketplace with a particular ambition is always going to create rumbles.”

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.

Along with the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, there is a Charles Willson Peale portrait of the Founding Father, with red cheeks, resting his left hand on the barrel of a cannon. These paintings and others, including a series of six Colonial-era portraits of the Levy-Franks family, make the museum’s first room feel distinctly canonical, like a miniature National Portrait Gallery. They are conservatively hung, and each one is carefully chosen to allow curators to teach American history alongside art history. The Levy-Franks portraits are billed as “the only large set of early colonial family portraits to survive intact.” But they are also images of a prominent Jewish mercantile family, opening up discussion of religion and tolerance in Colonial America.

“The institution has been built with a serious and real focus on public education — more than other new museums that I am familiar with,” says Clark Institute’s Conforti. There has also been an effort to appeal directly to people who have not previously been the targets of most cultural institutions.

“It parallels some of the core values of the Wal-Mart corporation: to look at rural audiences and nontraditional museum going public as the primary audience for her museum,” he says.

Across-the-board appeal

That, too, may explain some of the lingering suspicions about the museum. Crystal Bridges isn’t dumbing down art for a conservative local audience. But it is keenly aware of how the modern museum can be packaged for an audience that isn’t necessarily museum savvy. Among the usual amenities — including a restaurant and gift shop — the museum also offers walking and biking trails on its 120-acre site. And 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.

Museum leaders say they are planning for a possible 250,000 annual visitors. A membership drive that began in July has already netted more than 4,300 members, and to cater to up-market tourists who may visit, there are plans to build a boutique hotel near the town square of Bentonville, where Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime is now a local shrine.

All the while, cultural leaders far from Arkansas watch and wonder. The local symphony orchestra, in northwest Arkansas, has recently reorganized into a more professional ensemble. The Walton Arts Center in nearby Fayetteville has seen double-digit annual growth in its revenue and has plans to build two new theaters. Spurred not just by the enormous economic engine of Wal-Mart, but also Tyson Foods and the J.B. Hunt transportation company, the economy of northwest Arkansas is booming relative to the rest of the nation. Few areas in the country can boast cultural institutions in the growth phrase. But will Crystal Bridges pursue outsider art? Folk works? Art by lesser-known African American and Latino artists?

The museum isn’t done collecting. It has hopes for a major painting by James Whistler and a Jackson Pollock.

“People always say you’ll never get a great Pollock,” Bacigalupi says. “But we have a long horizon. If it’s not me, then my successor will find one.”

 
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