When Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, opened in Arkansas in 2011, friendly critics greeted it as one of the most important museums in American history. Others slammed her enterprise as a cultural screen for Walmart’s distasteful business practices. Neither assessment turned out to be squarely on point, and Crystal Bridges has now established itself as a successful regional cultural institution.
Research for the show, developed with the working title “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now,” involves traveling to every region of the United States and visiting nearly 1,000 artists’ studios in more than 80 cities and small towns. Ultimately, work by around 100 artists will be presented in an exhibition designed to occupy 16,000 square feet in the museum.
Execution of this ambitious project coincides with a deep reshuffling of the museum’s administrative and curatorial staff. Nearly all the curators on duty for the opening have departed, beginning with founding curator Chris Crosman; followed by David Houston, curatorial director and curator of contemporary art; and Kevin Murphy, curator of American art. Deputy director Matt Dawson has moved on as well. Museum director Don Bacigalupi, who has been elevated to the position of president of the museum and Crystal Bridges board member, is the project’s mastermind. “My new position has allowed me to focus on this and other large-scale projects,“ he says. “I’m concentrating now on applying our resources to build relationships with other parts of the country and the world.”
According to the museum, 84 percent of the one million visitors who visited Crystal Bridges from the November 2011 opening through August of this year came from Arkansas and nearby states. The audience, in short, has been overwhelmingly local and regional. The exhibition program has been designed for this demographic: this spring, for example, “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was on view at Crystal Bridges for 12 weeks and drew more than 121,000 viewers. Bacigalupi intends to draw upon these successes, he says, in crafting attractions for a broader range of audiences.
The launch of a new phase in the museum’s evolution is also an effect of blowback from the institution’s early success. “The glare of the grand opening extended far beyond what we expected,” says Houston, who is now director of the Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University’s College of the Arts in Columbus, Georgia. “Around 200,000–250,000 visitors were expected for the opening year, and 650,000 came. For much longer than we expected, we were still in a kind of crowd-management crisis, wondering what ‘normal’ operations might be like.
“In terms of curatorial practice, we began with a simple premise: trying to articulate a line of American art from the colonial period to the present. At the time of the opening, the line was segmented, and new acquisitions were intended to create a line that was less segmented. We were also learning about use-patterns and discovering that, in many ways, local and regional audiences are the heart and soul of Crystal Bridges, rather than audiences from afar.
“In my tenure at the museum we didn’t really have time to pull all of this together into a next-stage vision. Now they have an opportunity to work on the more conceptual side of collecting and exhibition strategies, and this effort will certainly be expanded as new curators are hired.”
The first new hire, Chad Alligood, was brought on board this summer to serve as Bacigalupi’s partner in selecting artists for the 2014 exhibition. Prior to assuming his position as assistant curator for special projects, Alligood served as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College in New York and Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
“I think Chad and I are a perfect complement to one another,” Bacigalupi says. “He’s 29, I’m 53. He’s at the beginning of his career, I’m later in mine. We’ve had different training, background experience, and have different eyes. He’s also committed to the research process, which is formulated and organized in quite an unorthodox way.”
Bacigalupi and his staff began the “State of the Art” project by asking dealers, collectors, educators, critics, artists’ organizations, and museum colleagues from around the country to nominate artists from their respective areas who are locally, but not nationally, recognized. From this survey, which yielded nearly 10,000 suggestions, museum staff developed their list of around 1,000 candidates for studio visits. Bacigalupi and Alligood have been traveling for months, “really getting our fingers on the pulse, diving deep into contemporary American practice, seeing what’s happening in artists’ studios in every part of the country.
“We don’t intend to produce a ‘survey,’” Bacigalupi says. “What we are trying to achieve is a show illustrating the best of what’s happening—the very best work that’s being created across the country by a very diverse plurality of artists.”
While these artist rankings and the exhibition’s “State of the Art” framework will inevitably invite charges of hubristic cultural imperialism, the curators are apparently undaunted, citing the unprecedented breadth of their research and plans for documenting their studio visits, including writing blogs for the Huffington Post.
At the midpoint of his travels, Bacigalupi began to draw some preliminary conclusions about the character of the country’s contemporary production. The discovery process, for example, seemed to work out in “powers of ten,” Bacigalupi says. “Given 10,000 artists of potential interest, we identified about 1,000 to visit, and about one-tenth of those we expect to be seriously considering for our show,” he says. “It’s a lesson about what it takes to find needles—the really great artists—in a haystack. There are lots of very good artists working in all parts of the country, but the ones we want to showcase are the most extraordinary and worthy of a national attention. But there’s always an opportunity for spontaneous discovery. I think often of Ivan Karp going to Robert Rauschenberg’s studio and Rauschenberg telling him, ‘You need to go across the hall and see Jasper’s work.’” (The famous dealer took Rauschenberg’s advice and discovered Jasper Johns.)
Another revelation for Bacigalupi was “the depth to which traditional and historical models are being reinvestigated in painting and sculpture and other art forms. At the other end of the spectrum is the number of artists who are involved in social practice, doing things in communities I would have naively called ‘social work’ 20 years ago, but now clearly being done under the auspices and rubric of making new art.”
These observations, to be sure, are grounded in the work of artists Bacigalupi and Alligood picked out from the original pool of 10,000. The winnowing, according to Bacigalupi, “centered largely on the degree to which the artists’ works address themselves to the public. That is, we’re responding to work that offers points of engagement or access to viewers. Sometimes those points are borne in the artist’s facility or virtuosity with materials, others in their referencing of history or tradition, or in their works’ engagement with issues and topics of relevance to our world.”
Although his assertion will certainly be challenged, Bacigalupi says, “I don’t think the show will reflect anyone’s taste—mine or Chad’s. It will be the result instead of rich conversations we’re having about every artist we are seeing, conversations that should produce a very good look at the best of what’s happening.”
The research process itself is integral to Bacigalupi’s master plan. “We’re planning a full range of educational programs that draw upon our studio visits, including distance learning. We’re thinking about the majority of people who have never been to or even thought about visiting an artist’s studio and engaging in a conversation with a living artist. There’s merit in demystifying the process of art making on the one hand but also in reanimating the magic of the artists who live among us and yet create extraordinary things.
“We are perhaps in a unique position to really make a difference in the understanding of American contemporary art. We’ve done a good job in the first couple of years connecting people who are not traditional museumgoers with our collection and the importance of art. Our responsibility for this show is to seek out the very best works, those we think are the most communicative and the most engaging, so we can do the same with contemporary art.”
Kevin Murphy, who left Crystal Bridges in June to become the curator of American art at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, views the project from another angle. “The huge number of visitors the museum has attracted seems to have produced a kind of Bilbao effect,” Murphy says. “So far, most of the museum’s visitors are from the region, but the possibility that the area could be transformed into a national or even international tourist venue is clearly alluring. The museum could concentrate on developing its solid permanent collection . . . but big contemporary exhibitions will sound flashier to national audiences and, not incidentally, help promote northwest Arkansas as a great place to be for high-level employees of companies like Walmart and Tyson Foods.
“My question—and I don’t know the answer—is: Is Arkansas ready for a really great art institution, or is it ready for a cultural attraction that also has a strong permanent collection? To me, there’s a critical difference between the two,” Murphy says. “Crystal Bridges is a huge ship with tremendous resources, and once it gets moving in a certain direction, it’s going to be very difficult to turn it around.”
Patricia Failing is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Washington in Seattle and an ARTnews contributing editor.