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Is Crystal Bridges, in rural Arkansas, the most woke museum in America?

"Bad Lawn" sculpture by Roxy Paine on display in 2016 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. (Marc F. Henning/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In the summer of 2016, curators at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art tried an experiment. Into their early American galleries, full of classic paintings by artists of the Hudson River School, they inserted a 1998 sculpture by Roxy Paine called “Bad Lawn.” Paine’s work looks like a crudely built low table, covered with dirt and patchy weeds, or a “bad lawn” gone to seed. The idea, says museum curator Mindy Besaw, was to mix up the classic painting galleries, full of smooth surfaces of oil paint, burnished colors and sublime vistas, with a grittier work that would raise relevant questions. In this case, it was about our relationship to nature, to things that are cultivated and things that are wild, and whether we are well-served by our sense that we have dominion over it.

Crystal Bridges, located in northwest Arkansas, was a major and lavishly funded addition to the landscape of American museums when it opened in 2011. To the consternation of museums around the world, the curators and advisers who helped establish Crystal Bridges had bought up a significant collection of American art, including prized pieces from the colonial era and the 19th century. With a seemingly bottomless supply of money from the Walton Family Foundation, they acquired essential works, such as Asher B. Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits” (from the New York Public Library for a reported $35 million) along with paintings by Thomas Moran, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole and other 19th-century painters.

Into this collection of trophies, hard won and at immense cost, Paine’s “Bad Lawn” brought a contemporary-art sense of irreverence and provocation. What would visitors think of it?

Only 6 percent of the those who left comments in a response box had negative feelings, according to Besaw. Others were curious, or confused but not hostile; many appreciated the gesture. More visitor research yielded yet another surprise: Many of the classic works by name-brand 19th-century artists, including “Kindred Spirits,” weren’t at the top of a list of audience favorites.

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This insight into the museum’s audience, along with a sense that the museum needed a more flexible strategy than its original, encyclopedic approach, has led to ongoing changes at Crystal Bridges. The early American galleries are closed for renovation and will be opened with works by Native American artists intermixed with the original painting collection. Perhaps the most notable change, however, is the astonishing mix of work by artists who are not white men throughout the museum. In a large gallery of recent and contemporary work, one finds work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Vanessa German, Mary Ann Currier, Tara Donovan, Susan Rothenberg, Titus Kaphar and Mark Tansey.

This may be the most “woke” room in any mainstream American museum today, with works by Native American, African American and female artists far outnumbering the only work by a white man, Tansey’s virtuosic sepia-toned “landscape” of broken and toppled ancient statuary. But it’s not the crude metrics or race and gender that matter, rather, it’s the utterly new narrative of contemporary art that emerges from the museum’s conscious and thorough effort at inclusivity. And this applies not just to the identity of the artists on view, but to the kind of work they make, as well. Painting may not, in fact, be dead after all, nor figuration, to judge by the many fine contemporary works included in the museum’s expanding permanent collection.

The curatorial effort to expand the canon isn’t limited to contemporary work. It is just as apparent throughout earlier 20th-century galleries. Women are well represented, and not just Georgia O’Keefe (though she’s a big presence). A recent acquisition of a powerful “precisionist” painting by Elsie Driggs shares space with Charles Sheeler, along with other female artists. In a room with abstract expressionism, women also dominate, with two works by Helen Frankenthaler, and a Joan Mitchell and a Grace Hartigan near works by Mark Rothko and David Smith.

A new museum opens in Arkansas, lavishly funded

What’s more striking is that all of these pieces look canonical, which is to say, they look like they belong to an evolving, historical conversation about the visual world; they are at ease in this space and they speak to each other in meaningful ways. There is a sense, often, that to bring genuine inclusivity to a museum, you have to blow up the canon altogether. But that’s not the case here. Rather, the curators have simply looked harder, expanded the horizons and found serious, substantial and meaningful art that is not one whit inferior to the more famous (and mostly white male) works on view.

Although with its $800 million endowment Crystal Bridges is rich, and a relative newcomer, it has established itself with more gravitas than other museums that have been fashioned, ex nihilo, from the gleaming lucre of a single wealthy person (in this case, Alice Walton, who was the driving force behind Crystal Bridges). Compare it with, say, the Broad in Los Angeles, and you see the difference between a museum with an identity and a purpose and a collector’s folly, warehoused in an architectural treasure house.

The newness of the museum plays a role in its flexibility. “I appreciate that we don’t just want to do things as we’ve always done them,” says Besaw. “People don’t know what to expect,” which means the museum can actually lead its audience, rather than slavishly serve what it thinks the audience wants.

Critics, too, often fall into the trap of making assumptions about audiences. We use them as a straw man to amplify our sense of surprise or delight or disappointment. The audience, we think, is stuck in its ways, which is why we were pleased to see a museum take chances. Or, more often, the audience wanted what it always wants, and the institution gave it to them, and what a pity. The easy headline for any story about Crystal Bridges, which sits in a small city in a rural part of a conservative state, is that it must somehow be out of place in Arkansas, always sailing against the prevailing winds of local taste.

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But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The museum took chances from the beginning and is taking bigger ones now, including hosting a bracing but beautiful exhibition devoted to art of the Black Power era. And there seems to be a synergy between the risks taken, and the engagement of the audience. When a piece by the prominent gay Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was installed, Besaw remembers a colleague saying of the audience: “They’re coming along with us. We’re learning, growing, shaping.”

There’s wisdom in that, simple, but too often opaque to museum leaders. Audiences are made, not found, and you inevitably get the audience you deserve.