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.
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.”