Founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, currently the wealthiest woman in the United States, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened its doors in 2011, but despite a commendable five-year record of accomplishment, it remains a perplexing outlier among the country’s well-endowed art museums—and not just because, like Walton, it grew up in Northwest Arkansas. During its run so far, leadership has pivoted around a minefield at the heart of the museum’s raison d’etre: showcasing “the American spirit” on the one hand, while acknowledging the incredible diversity of “America” on the other.
But confronting the underlying dynamics of privilege embedded in its mission has not appeared to be a priority during the museum’s first years of operation. Although they still endorse the museum’s founding ambition, curators and staff are now testing new initiatives that tacitly acknowledge its impediments and limits. These efforts line up with a range of other ironies and paradoxes within Crystal Bridges’ unique institutional profile. Luxuriously appointed yet enthusiastically populist, the museum operates with a $1.2 billion endowment from the Walton Family Foundation. Another $20 million from the foundation supports free admission to the permanent collection. Famous initially for its 18th- and 19th-century paintings, the collection now makes headlines for modern and contemporary acquisitions, most recently a $36-million Jasper Johns flag painting, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, acquired for $44.4 million, and Felix Gonzales-Torres’s Untitled (LA) for $7.7 million, a record for the late artist. Despite being located more than 200 miles from the nearest big city in the state, the museum has welcomed 2.7 million viewers since 2011. Thousands of them were first-time visitors to an art museum. “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell,” predictably the most popular show in the museum’s early history, was eclipsed in attendance in 2015 by the 175,000 viewers who came to see Crystal Bridges’ first major contemporary-art exhibition, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.”
The audience statistics are a tribute not only to the museum’s outreach strategies, but also to crowd management. Attentive volunteers in casual attire personally greet visitors at the main entrance, offering directions, recommendations, and audio guides. Walton herself participates on occasion. Theater, too, plays into the threshold experience: to enter the building, visitors must walk between the legs of Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot spider sculpture. Just behind the greeters, suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s spectacular vaulted restaurant, is Jeff Koons’s glittery 10-foot-wide, circa-$23-million pendant Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), 1994–2006. Restaurant chatter suggests that, for most of the crowd, it’s an awesomely beautiful equivalent of a warm hug, and for those familiar with Koons’s wink-wink aesthetic, the setting itself registers as especially apropos.
Sited in the small, prosperous, and relatively remote town of Bentonville, the museum has been less successful in retaining its curatorial and administrative staff. Director Don Bacigalupi, deputy director Matt Dawson, curators Kevin Murphy, David Houston, Manuela Well-Off-Man and, most recently, Chad Alligood, have come and gone. Murphy, now curator of American art at the Williams College Museum in Massachusetts, ruefully acknowledged his failure to acclimate to the “Afghanistan of curatorial posts.” The museum’s resources, however, continue to entice well-respected curators, including the most recent hire, Lauren Haynes, a former curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem and a specialist in African American modern and contemporary art.
Last year Crystal Bridges announced a plan to convert a 63,000-square-foot former Bentonville Kraft cheese plant into its first satellite campus. Financed by the Walton Family foundation, the facility will showcase artists’ projects, contemporary-art exhibitions, film, music, performances, and food vendors, all “furthering Crystal Bridges’ guiding principle of welcoming all to celebrate the American spirit,” as the institution put it in a press release. In addition to growing the museum’s permanent collection and organizing exhibitions at Crystal Bridges, Haynes will assist in program design and supervise artists’ projects for the new space.
The museum is currently searching for an executive for the Kraft campus, and the opening has been postponed from 2018 to 2019. In the meantime, Haynes will launch a series of site-specific installations and temporary exhibitions in the museum’s North Forest, a newly accessible landscape within the 120 acres of verdant Ozark terrain surrounding the museum. “It’s especially invigorating for me to think about what it means to develop contemporary artists’ projects in a forest environment,” Haynes said. “We’re definitely in a growth mode, and I think we’ll develop an innovative interplay between these projects and those in the new industrial facility. It’s understood in all of this that I’m very committed to artists of color, and to telling a broader story of America as seen through the visual arts.”
Crystal Bridges is also expanding resources devoted to American architecture. In 2013 the museum acquired one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s middle-class Usonian homes, the 1954 Bachman-Wilson house. Originally located in Millstone, New Jersey, the dwelling was reconstructed at the museum in an idyllic setting modeled after its original site, and is open for tours. On the opposite side of the museum, the largest of Buckminster Fuller’s Fly Eye Domes is being installed, a structure he envisioned as “a beautiful, fully equipped, air-deliverable house that weighs and costs as much as a good automobile.” The museum acquired all of Fuller’s archives related to the dome’s development, and the documents will also be on view when the dome opens later this summer. These exemplars of a “search for a uniquely American architecture,” a museum statement reads, “firmly establish architecture as one of the primary pillars of Crystal Bridges’ mission.”
In a broader sense, the museum’s leaders have turned their attention to matters of operational and curatorial priorities. Curator Mindy Besaw, whose purview ranges from the 18th century to the later 1940s, was hired in 2014, and has formulated adjustments for the future. “Crystal Bridges is evolving organically from an institution founded on a private collection to an art museum with a much more complex texture,“ she told me. “We’re now ramping up the development of our own exhibitions and publications in partnership with other smart people. We’re also bringing in artists’ voices and establishing community and advisory groups to open up our mission to new perspectives. All of this is coming together, and in the next five years I think what happens at Crystal Bridges could make a real difference, nationally and internationally.”
Currently in progress is a traveling exhibition project designed for the future Besaw has in mind. A show with the working title “Native North America” will be the first exhibition to chart the history of contemporary Indigenous art from the United States and Canada, and is intended to “radically expand and reposition the narrative of American art since the 1960s,” Besaw said. Co-curated by Besaw and Candice Hopkins, a writer, art historian, and curator for Documenta 14 who is a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the show is scheduled to open at Crystal Bridges in 2018. The project represents yet another institutional irony: even if the show does not redirect the historiography of American art, it seems destined to take a mighty toll on museum endorsements of “the American spirit.”