SEVEN YEARS IS a long time to fume over the cultural power of the nouveaux riches. But that’s been the reaction of many in the art world ever since Alice Walton—major heir to the Walmart fortune and thus one of the wealthiest people on the planet—plopped down a staggering $35 million for Asher B. Durand’s 1849 painting Kindred Spirits (a distant view of artist Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant on a high ledge in the Catskill Mountains) and then spirited it from the walls of the New York Public Library to the Ozark foothills. It was the opening volley in her 21st-century campaign pitting South against North, popular against elite values.
Walton (b. 1949), daughter of Walmart’s founder, is an anomaly: an accomplished horsewoman, she does not generally hobnob with artistic mavens on either coast, and her pockets remain deep while the global economy is in a volatile, even hemorrhagic condition. (In 2011, Forbes listed her as number 21 on a list of the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $20.9 billion.1) Moreover, until her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art debuted to great fanfare in Bentonville, Ark., on Nov. 11, 2011, few people knew the range or size of the trove she’s been collecting. Walton’s secrecy and interloper status irked art world insiders, and critics resorted to speculation, innuendo and “snarkiness,” according to David Houston, the museum’s curatorial director.2 Walton is not completely unknown in art circles, however: she has served on the boards of both the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In hindsight, Sandy Edwards, deputy director of museum relations at Crystal Bridges, recognizes that the museum’s refusal to reveal its holdings in advance exposed the venture to attack. But administrators decided not to release information in dribs and drabs because, she argues, “it’s hard to talk about a collection that’s ‘becoming.'”3 Rather, the idea was “to build a groundswell and then pull the cloth away for the reveal—voilà!” says Houston. Now that the 217,000-square-foot facility is open, with an inaugural showcasing of some 400 of its more than 1,400 works,4 Crystal Bridges is available for critical scrutiny.
The project is pharaonic in scope and ambition, aiming not only to establish a world-class museum during a precipitous fiscal downturn but to transform an Arkansas hollow into a cultural destination. Striving to realize these wishes in a 120-acre wooded site that Walton roamed in her youth, workmen have reshaped the land, rerouted a stream and planted thousands of seedlings. A freshly assembled managerial staff, meanwhile, has created operational and curatorial teams to facilitate the public display of a largely individually amassed art collection.
Bentonville (population 35,000) is Walmart, full stop. Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime still anchors the town’s compact square. Established in 1950, the store is now the Walmart Visitor Center and a monument to the business acumen of “Mr. Sam.” Walton (1918–1992) was raised during the Depression, became the youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri, graduated from the University of Missouri in 1940 and served stateside during WWII in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps. After the war, he established himself as canny entrepreneur, steadily expanding his discount emporium into the world’s largest retailer.
According to the center’s educational materials, Walton, a devoted family man, epitomized “timeless small-town values.” A hagiographic film screened at the center features George Bush, Sr., fighting back tears as he awards Mr. Sam the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and declares, “His success is our success, America’s success.” The irony is, of course, that Walmart’s gargantuan size, immense buying power and tightfisted labor practices enable the company to dominate the marketplace wherever it goes, forcing many local enterprises out of business and draining life from countless Main Streets and town squares whose values it supposedly embodies. Meanwhile, its reliance on cheap manufacturing in China has robbed the U.S. heartland of innumerable jobs.
But enough of the real world. Just as People Greeters welcome shoppers to all Walmart stores, Gallery Guides at Crystal Bridges sport large “Ask Me” buttons and repeatedly inquire, “Are you enjoying yourself?” Introducing selected works, they loudly proclaim, “This is a national treasure!” Guides also offer interpretations and supply background information on the art.5 Moreover, from parking attendants to restaurant waitstaff, all Crystal Bridges personnel seem to have dutifully absorbed Sam Walton’s “10-foot rule”: “I promise and declare that whenever I come within 10 feet of a customer, I will look him in the eye, greet him, and ask if I can help him.” Under the scrutiny of two Guides per gallery in addition to a phalanx of roving guards, museum visitors may find it difficult to quietly contemplate the art or form their own opinions about the museum experience.
In a locale where entries for churches and religious organizations fill eight pages in the regional yellow pages (only doctors, dentists, restaurants and plumbers—many of them with large picture ads—take up comparable space), faith and work are closely intertwined. During my visit, one outdoor church sign counseled, “If you don’t succeed / read the instructions / the Bible,” and another advised, “Autumn leaves / Jesus doesn’t.” Besides Crystal Bridges, places of cultural interest in the area include the Daisy Airgun Museum; the Promised Land Zoo; Terra Studios, source of the Bluebird of Happiness glass collectibles; and the Precious Moments Chapel, whose “ministry of art” murals, painted by illustrator Samuel J. Butcher, feature 84 biblical scenes. Kum & Go gas stations are a local favorite and Hog Huntin’ magazine is featured at the airport.
On the drive into town, you see that the built environment recapitulates the economic evolution of the area: a cluster of ancient shacks, their brittle wooden slats weathered to gray, gives way to a doublewide trailer, followed by a new gated community, its medieval-style guard tower looming over a solitary house. Roadhouse barbecue joints proiferate, while subdivisions bear unlikely names such as El Contento. At the museum, visitor garb includes elaborately embroidered rodeo shirts, cowboy boots and hats, oversize belt buckles, and T-shirts commemorating trips to the Grand Ole Opry or the Rock and Worship Roadshow. It’s easy to disdain such social particulars, but art world sophisticates—as advocates of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism—might well consider the extent to which these folkways represent an authentic regional style and a venerable history.
IN 1880, JOSEPH C. Choate, a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhorted those assembled for the museum’s dedication to step up and invest in culture for the public good:
Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets-what glory may yet be yours, if only you listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery . . . and railroad shares and mining stocks . . . into the glorified canvas of the world’s masters, that shall adorn these walls for centuries.6
While today’s corporate fortunes may spring from different products and ser- vices, the impulse remains strong, from the Carnegies, Whitneys, Morgans, Fricks and Gardners through the Rockefellers (both Abby and John D.) to the Lauders and Broads onward: the wealthy establish cultural institutions to educate and uplift the masses, while also celebrating their personal accomplishments and largesse.
Significantly, Alice Walton resisted the time-honored practice of erecting an eponymous edifice that dominates its environment. Without considering any other architects, she tapped Moshe Safdie to design an over $100-million complex in harmony with its surroundings, an institution named after the local Crystal Stream and “grounded in place,” according to Houston. Edwards describes it as a “merging of art, nature and architecture.”
The scheme spawns organic analogies: three vaulted, lozenge-shaped pavilions feature ribbed copper-and-glass roofs evoking the conjoined sections of an armadillo’s carapace. One contains galleries; another, a restaurant; the third, a Great Hall for lectures and other special events. Inside these spaces, it’s as if you’ve entered the body cavity of a whale or dinosaur. The pavilions are accompanied by six other structures that house administrative offices, a library, the majority of the exhibition areas and service facilities. Soaring windows torque outward, sleek surfaces abound, and the sprawling campus surrounds an artificial pond. At night the building’s arched red cedar ceiling beams are suffused with a warm glow; they, in turn, create fanlike patterns on the glass. All in all, Crystal Bridges resembles a small, gleaming, bustling city.
In keeping with the people-friendly plan, six nature trails meander for more than three miles, casually connecting downtown Bentonville with the museum. James Turrell’s The Way of Color (2009), housed in a circular structure beside one of the paths, exemplifies the desired convergence of art and environment. Equal parts ancient celestial observatory and high-tech visual spectacle, it invites visitors to gaze through the large aperture in the roof as hundreds of LED lights progress through the color spectrum and interact with the sky and atmospheric conditions to create a slowly shifting panorama of hues.
The museum’s engineering and materials are impressive; the place is clearly calculated to dazzle. But Safdie’s design raises the question that all starchitect projects do: how conducive is it to presenting artwork? Kevin Murphy, curator of American art, admits that it took a while for the staff to “understand the code” of the building. The layout, he quips, simulates a car wash: once you enter the galleries, you pretty much have to proceed through to the end.7
Accordingly, the passageways between several galleries, filled with comfortable seating and stacks of art books, offer carefully staged out- door vistas-for example, a dramatically rocky manmade waterfall-to allow people to linger and relax. In Houston’s words, Crystal Bridges incorporates “the container, the contained and what surrounds them.”
After construction, one of the glass-sided pavilions required the addition of two self-contained, boxlike structures in the interior to house exhibitions; otherwise, the artwork would have been flooded with light. And although Murphy feels there are “cinematic moments” In the architecture, the design favors soaring spaces that unfortunately dwarf even some of the largest pieces in the collection. Alexander Calder’s nearly 11-foot-tall freestanding mobile Trois noirs sur un rouge (1968) shrinks in the vastness, losing much of its effect. And roped off by stanchions, the work impedes easy movement through the gallery. The impact of Wayne Thiebaud’s uncanny, vibrant and meticulously painted Supine Woman (1963) is somewhat muted by the gallery’s strong electric light and by being paired with Andy Warhol’s coolly washed-out Dolly Parton (1985).
“CELEBRATING THE AMERICAN SPIRIT,” the opening selection from the collection, presents work chronologically, not thematically, an approach Houston claims would have created “too many orphans.” Major subjects can be discerned, however, including nature, especially as depicted in the late 19th-century landscapes; American artists, their shifting identity examined through self-portraits, studio views and portraits by others; women, via images either by or about them; and Native Americans. Crystal Bridges features art from the Colonial era through the present, but the period from 1860 to 1920 provides “the ballast” of the collection, according to Houston. Artists such as Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis are well represented, as are the Hudson River School, the Ash Can School and Regionalism. The curators are mindful that the museum’s post-WWII holdings are currently much thinner.
Crowds tend to bottleneck around particular works: Durand’s Kindred Spirits, of course (visitors are keenly aware of its hefty price tag); Norman Rockwell’s iconic WWII canvas Rosie the Riveter (1943); and Dennis Miller Bunker’s Portrait of Anne Page (1887), whose Victorian-era sitter, with her fragile beauty, is said to remind younger viewers of Bella in the “Twilight” film saga. Devorah Sperber’s installation After the Last Supper (2005), called the “Lord’s Supper” by some visitors, proves alluring because it utilizes materials uncommon to art (over 20,000 spools of thread) and presents a familiar image flipped upside down; one gets the corrected view by looking at the piece through a clear acrylic sphere.
But many of the most satisfying moments in Crystal Bridges are generated in small ways, often by paintings: the vibrantly rendered hummingbirds in Martin Johnson Heade’s series “The Gems of Brazil” (1863-64) are flirty and balletic; the salt-glazed finish of the earthenware crock in Raphaelle Peale’s Corn and Cantaloupe (ca. 1813) glistens as if new, matched by the garden-fresh rendering of the earth’s bounty; the tranquil tenderness of George de Forest Brush’s The Indian and the Lily (1887) suggests both a forest idyll (the wings of a spoonbill carcass carried on the hunter’s back beatify him, chiming visually with the white blossom he reaches to pluck) and imminent threat (the Indian, like the bird, is implicitly endangered by the era’s white-race incursions); and Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Little Joe with Cow (1923) is a fanciful, slightly vertiginous jumble of stylized forms (boy, cow, house, vegetation).
Murphy asserts, “The idea was to tell the simpler story in the initial installation and a ‘messier’ story perhaps later,” while Houston argues that the curatorial mandate was “not to come in with a revisionist or an alternative point of view; this is meant to be a mainstream cultural institution.” But the consequences of this gambit can be diffidence or evasiveness. For example, the wall text describing Marsden Hartley’s Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy (1940) reads as follows:
This painting depicts an unidentified young boxer from the town of Madawaska, Maine. The boxer’s neck is a stump-like slab rising out of mountainous, triangular deltoids. It is a body shaped by and representative of a harsh northern environment, where wood-splitting is still a survival skill and daily necessity. He stands in an indeterminate, shallow space, his face and body partially hidden in shadow against a blood-red ground. The portrait conveys a sense of passion that is immediate and direct, true to the blunt grace of the artist’s subject, com- position, and technique.
An obfuscating compositional analysis thus prevails, whereas the same-sex desire that suffuses the work remains unstated.8 Similarly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns are paired, with the men being characterized as “close friends.” And little is offered about multiple works by George Tooker and Paul Cadmus—two by the latter explicitly highlighting the nude male figure—beyond the deliberately vague remark that “seduction and mystery abound.” Houston describes the museum’s labels as containing “no polysyllabic or technical terms, but not [reflecting] populist vernacular either.” But those parameters gloss over vital information, a strategy that dumbs down interpretation and ultimately shortchanges the audience.
Furthermore, some Crystal Bridges curatorial and educational choices are idiosyncratic. Jack Levine’s The Arms Brokers (1982-83) has been hung alongside the wall text explicating postmodernism. The date of this painting falls within the relevant time frame, to be sure, but the work, a smeary group portrait of international death merchants, features the same satirical, quasi-naturalist style that Levine had been practicing for decades—with little or no po-mo self-reflexiveness. One of the roving Gallery Guides, in explicating the cast aluminum floor sculpture Eat Meat (1969/75), branded Lynda Benglis an Abstract Expressionist, a designation that obscures as much as it illuminates. Benglis certainly manifests formal continuity and critical engagement with Ab-Ex, but the Guide’s overly simple characterization elides the key influences of Pop art and feminism on her work.
The potential of Crystal Bridges is best glimpsed in the temporary exhibition “Wonder World: Nature and Perception in Contemporary American Art” (through May 5). The 33 works, imaginatively chosen from the collection and cleverly displayed, appeal to both constituencies that, according to Houston, make up the museum’s audience: the “cultured crowd” and the “common crowd.” Works such as Walton Ford’s creepy monumental painting The Island (2009), showing a writhing pile of now extinct Tasmanian wolves; Vik Muniz’s birds-and-flowers digital C-print White Brazilian Orchid after Martin Johnson Heade (2010); Roxy Paine’s fake-grass tabletop sculpture Bad Lawn (1998); Al Souza’s collagelike abstract image made up of puzzle pieces, Field and Stream (2001); and Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s tour-de- force marquetry-filled walk-in installation Room (2007-08), all shown in one gallery, address the exhibition’s theme in highly original and challenging ways. In an adjacent room, John Baldessari’s super- sized visual gag Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear), Opus #132 Reverse (2007), a sculpture that features a wall-mounted plaster ear with an antiquated ear trumpet protruding from it, has an interactive auditory component, making it a brilliant counterpart to two whimsical Nick Cave “Soundsuit” costumes.
EXACTLY WHAT ROLE does Alice Walton play at Crystal Bridges? Her family foundation has provided the institution an endowment of $800 million, and her eye has shaped the core collection.9 In addition to being the museum’s founder, she chairs its board of directors and is a member of the art committee.10 She also sought the counsel of board member John Wilmerding, former deputy director of the National Gallery and emeritus professor of art history at Princeton. According to the curatorial staff, Walton is not active in day-to-day operations, however. Edwards maintains, “Alice is a visible part of the process, but she’s not the process.”
All the curators have produced white papers envisioning the future of their respective areas.Their current work conditions are enviable: they have the resources to build from the ground up at a time when many cultural endeavors are struggling. Indeed, the entire staff seems to share an upbeat perspective and a keen sense of adventure; they yearn to generate a welcoming environment for everyone, where “fun,” “dream” and “wow” are operative terms. Edwards advises, “We’re a bit of a sandbox; we’ll try things.”
Yet in the established art world, advance critical reaction to the very idea of Crystal Bridges has been almost uniformly disparaging. This response is two-pronged. First, the indirect sponsor, Walmart, is perceived to be a market- place bully whose name is synonymous with big volume, low quality and a dull uniformity. Second, the museum has been plopped into what many Americans consider the boondocks. Crystal Bridges runs the risk of becoming the Bentonville Hillbilly of art institutions, unless it can develop credibility both within its immediate locale and beyond.
It is not sufficient, therefore, to simply glory in the glitz of this recently acquired cache of art treasures, or let the institution subsist as a vanity project. Museum personnel must demonstrate that they deeply understand the art historical lineage of their holdings; that they trust their visitors sufficiently to offer them potentially controversial information and let them make up their own minds about it; and that they realize a museum visit need not be a prepackaged and highly managed experience, with a feel-good narrative designed to leave one simply awestruck and joyous. Because Crystal Bridges administrators and curators do not have to constantly eye the bottom line, or worry about angering potential paying customers (admission fees have been underwritten for years to come), they should feel freer to develop a strong interpretive voice and spawn new insights into their collection. They must strike a balance between merely displaying pretty pictures and changing our minds about what those works signify.
At the same time, this museum poses distinct challenges to art world regulars as well. We would be naive to think that the big money behind many currently exalted institutions is “cleaner” than Walton’s, or comes with fewer strings attached. Art buying is a high-stakes game that only a limited number of people can play, so if a self-righteous and moralistic tone is to be taken with Walton, then the gloves need to come off in regard to other high rollers in the art market, too. (Kudos to the New York Times for its Nov. 26, 2011, exposé of Ronald Lauder’s tax-sheltering practices.)
Moreover, critics have been displaying a reverse-style NIMBY reaction: Nowhere EXCEPT in My Backyard! Crystal Bridges represents a form of geographical populism that does not sit well with art world elitists who believe that culture exists, and should be cultivated, in just a few cherished spots, preferably of their own choosing. But why-especially in an age of electronic communications and mass travel-must art be confined to a handful of metropoles? And if the art world has beaten a path to Bilbao or the tiny and remote Marfa, Tex., why not to Bentonville?
1. Also on the Forbes list last year: sister-in-law Christy Walton, no. 10, with $24.5 billion; brother Jim, no. 20, with $21.1 billion; and brother S. Robson, no. 21, with $20.5 billion. 2. All David Houston quotes from an interview with the author, Bentonville, Ark., Nov. 18, 2011. Houston, who holds an MA from the University of South Carolina, was the founding curator and later codirector of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. 3. All Sandy Edwards quotes from an interview with the author, Bentonville, Ark., Nov. 17, 2011. Edwards holds an MS from Western Illinois University and has worked in higher education development as well as performing arts and music management, ranging from rock groups to symphony orchestras. Among the other public controversies tied to Walton and Crystal Bridges before the museum opened were the attempted purchase of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875) from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia (where panicked citizens quickly raised sufficient cash to keep the painting in the city) and an Arkansas sales tax exemption that seemed specifically tailored to benefit Walton’s art purchases. 4. The museum is concentrating on paintings, works on paper and sculpture. There is no plan to collect pieces in other mediums. 5. Gallery Guides received approximately nine months of training, once a week for five hours. This volunteer cohort numbers 44, and is complemented by a group of 20 Trail Guides, who work outdoors on weekends; e-mail communication, Aaron Jones, Crystal Bridges interpretation manager, Nov. 22, 2011. 6. Quoted in Calvin Tomkins, Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Henry Holt, 1989 (1970), p. 23. 7. All Kevin Murphy remarks from an interview with the author, Bentonville, Ark., Nov. 17, 2011. Murphy has a PhD in art history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was formerly an associate curator of American art at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. 8. Christopher B.Crosman, the museum’s founding curator, directly addresses Hartley’s sexuality and its relevance to his work in the exhibition catalogue: Christopher B. Crosman et al., Celebrating the American Spirit: Masterworks from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 2011, p. 242. Crosman, who studied art history at Oberlin College in Ohio, was previously co- director of the William A. Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, and of the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, N.Y. 9. The funding breakdown is $350 million for operating expenses, $325 mil- lion for acquisitions and $125 million for capital improvements. 10. Two additional Waltons as well as a Tyson (scion of another local business colossus) account for half of the remaining board members.