November 11, 2011

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art officially opened its doors on Friday after a good run of enthusiastic news coverage, including praise for its unique architecture, designed by Moshe Safdie, and for the remarkable collection that Alice L. Walton, Wal-Mart heir, has amassed.

Amid the plaudits, however, there was obligatory mention of its “unlikely” location: Bentonville, Ark.

With a mix of bemusement, condescension and occasional disgust, outside observers remarked on the treasure trove of fine art that would be far away from the country’s major metropolitan areas. Even when the concept received a nice pat on the head (“After all, people in the middle of the country should get to see some good art too,” Rebecca Solnit wrote for the Nation), there was an underlying sense that this great cultural resource somehow doesn’t belong here — that it is being wasted on hicks who won’t appreciate it and therefore don’t deserve it.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Crystal Bridges resides in the region that has come to define American culture, and the South is exactly where our nation’s most ambitious new cultural institution belongs.

In fact, the idea that Arkansans would not recognize the value of Crystal Bridges was being disproved before it even opened. Last month the museum announced that it had already enrolled nearly 5,000 members.

And why should great art reside mainly in big coastal cities? Is it because that is where a lot of wealth is concentrated? If so, why was so much criticism leveled against Walton, who conceived and developed Crystal Bridges, for using her family fortune to wield considerable power in the art market and bring so many significant works to Arkansas?

Is it because those cities are big population centers? Actually, the country has seen a significant population shift; according to census data, the center of our national population over the past 220 years has moved in an almost perfect line from Washington, D.C., toward . . . yes, Bentonville. As people continue to migrate south and southwest, access to art and culture should follow.

There is a sense of entitlement among people on the East and West coasts about where fine art belongs, and they are provincial in their attitudes toward Arkansas and the South because most of them have never been here. I know this firsthand, because I grew up in New York City and came down to Arkansas when I was 17 to attend college. Almost everyone I knew outside the South thought I was crazy to move here and even crazier to stay. And, over the years, I have heard plenty of the same uninformed, snobbish ribbing about the South that has been directed toward Crystal Bridges. In response, I’ve spent countless hours explaining to friends the virtues and pleasures of living here.

This state, with a population of less than 3 million, has a long history of punching above its weight in business, politics and other categories. I believe there are quantifiable reasons why Arkansas has produced a president of the United States and the largest corporation in the world, and if you look closely, you will see that Bill Clinton and Wal-Mart manifest similar qualities — namely, an ability to compete at the highest levels without being pretentious or elitist. This lack of pretension is disarming and often their biggest asset.

Crystal Bridges brings the same approach to fine art, and this makes it a particularly excellent place to exhibit and appreciate some of our nation’s most notable pieces.

For instance, take “Kindred Spirits,” the Asher B. Durand painting that was one of Crystal Bridges’ earliest and most controversial acquisitions. The New York Public Library had owned the work for about 100 years, and many believed that it should have remained in New York because it is among the most notable examples of the Hudson River School of painting. Of course, by that logic, most of our major national museums should return their artistic and sculptural masterworks to their original homes around the world.

More important, however, “Kindred Spirits” represents man’s connection to, and communion with, nature. It shows two men on the precipice of a boulder, observing the majestic landscape of the Catskills. Before Walton purchased it, the painting was displayed in a big stone building on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. Now it will be on view in an airy, light-filled exhibition space in a creek valley, surrounded by woods in a mountain region that closely resembles the Catskills. When I visited Bentonville this past spring to see the construction on Crystal Bridges, I approached the museum on a nature trail that begins a few steps from the small town square, which is as perfectly charming as one you would expect to see on a Hollywood movie set.

And of course, it is this small town where the largest corporation in the world makes its home. In that “Kindred Spirits” also represents the unlimited opportunity and potential embodied by the idea of America, it seems to have found an appropriate place to rest.

In fact, Bentonville is almost exactly the right place for a new institution dedicated to showcasing the history and range of American art, not only because it sits in a breathtaking natural setting in the middle of the country, but particularly because it is in the South.

This region has provided much of what the rest of the world thinks of as American culture. From music to literature to cuisine and other forms of artistic expression, the South has played a unique role in defining our national identity. Ask someone from another country to name “American” foods, and they will most likely begin with fried chicken and barbecue. Or ask them to name “American” music, and they will probably say jazz, blues and rock-and-roll. The short list of essential American writers always includes William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

To this day, Southerners experience and perpetuate their culture in ways that most of us take for granted, because it is a part of our day-to-day existence. We are surrounded by it, actually. But we don’t often recognize it for what it is.

New York and California are where art goes to be feted and marketed. In the South, it is simply part of who we are.

Warwick Sabin is the publisher of the Oxford American, a magazine of Southern culture. He is also a candidate for the Arkansas House of Representatives.

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