Last December, before my visit to Crystal Bridges, I wrote about the challenges of being a museum funded by Wal-Mart money and located in Bentonville, Arkansas. I had interviewed the museum’s director, Don Bacigalupi, and I was taken with his brand of populism — which did not equate inclusion with dumbing down content and pandering to the lowest common denominator. And, as a native Arkansan, I was looking forward to Crystal Bridges. Admittedly, the museum didn’t have to do much to outdistance other Ozark-area attractions like Branson and the Precious Moments Chapel.
I assumed I’d like Crystal Bridges, but I wasn’t prepared to be so impressed or to feel so enthusiastic about it. With all the hype about Wal-Mart as the source of founder Alice Walton’s wealth, I think some people initially expected some sort of “red state” patriotic museum of American art. And with its location in the Arkansas Ozarks, I think they also feared a certain conservative agenda might run through the collection. (It had crossed my mind as well.) That is far from the case, however. The museum’s setting is gorgeous and it’s acquired some impressive works, but it is Crystal Bridges’ re-imagining of the broader story of American art that is especially impressive.
Attendance at Crystal Bridges during the trough between Christmas and New Year’s was so heavy, the free museum was issuing timed tickets as a means of crowd control. But as someone in admissions told me over the phone, they weren’t turning anyone away. That attitude of welcome, openness and accommodation really pervades the museum, from its architecture to its programming.
Crystal Bridges isn’t about the ego-driven monument on a hill: the museum is modestly sited down in a valley; its low-slung colonnaded entrance curves along a circular driveway. Roxy Paine’s stainless steel tree, Yield, is out front, bending against an imaginary wind. (I hadn’t been that taken with it in photos, but in person it’s stark, shimmering drama works surprisingly well against the surrounding woods.) You walk around the entrance to take an elevator down into the museum itself. Before you do, there is a viewing platform that overlooks a portion of the museum’s network of connecting buildings and spring-fed ponds.
The elevator opens into a courtyard and the entrance to the museum. Before I visited, I thought the curved walls of many of the buildings would be too gimmicky and obtrusive for an art museum. (The Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim is an iconic building but it’s a crappy space in terms of showing art. And the walls in Crystal Bridges are enough of factor that the museum consulted the Guggenheim about curved-wall hanging strategies.) But the curves are gentle enough that they work well, for the most part. And in one section, long, rectilinear galleries are constructed within arcing glass walls.
Unfortunately, the entrance to the first gallery (below) is one of the most awkward spaces, exacerbated by the placement of the freestanding exhibition walls. It feels like you walked in through the back door. But while a disappointment, it’s not a tragedy. The works and their groupings are what make this section.
In this gallery, which includes works from the colonial period through the 19th century, Crystal Bridges is setting out to create a much richer and more multifaceted vision of early America than traditionally presented. The gallery opens with an amazing series of portraits by Gerardus Duyckinck. Instead of depicting the progeny of early American Puritans, the ca. 1735 portraits feature members of a Jewish New York family from the Colonial period.
Duyckinck’s “naïve” paintings are a wonderful blend of flat awkwardness with moments of elegance. And one of his subjects, Abigaill Levy Franks, is particularly historically important for the letters she left behind and their fascinating portrait of her life, her family and the period and place in which she lived.
In this same gallery, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington is hung next to Charles Bird King’s portrait of Crouching Eagle, a Native American chief. King’s painting is a sensitive work that feels like a portrait of a person rather than an illustration of some exotic character. Placing these to portraits adjacent to each other positions them as fellow leaders of separate peoples occupying the same continent. It may be an obvious historical point, but it’s one that often becomes lost in popular perceptions of American history.
Further fleshing out the story of America are 19th century works that include African Americans without glossing over their plight. Richard Caton Woodville’s 1848 War News from Mexico clearly presents the social hierarchy and conditions of the day. Well-dressed, top-hatted white men occupy a porch and exclaim over the news, a lone woman leans out a window, straining to hear. Meanwhile, a black man in worn clothes sits on the bottom step and a child in a tattered shift stands barefoot next to him. There are numerous other moments of inclusion and acknowledgement in these galleries. There is a mid-19th century work attributed to the female artist Susan Catherine Moore, one of the rare itinerant female painters of the period. In George W. Pettit’s intriguing 1865 painting, Union Refugees, a black man accompanies fleeing white adults and children. Walking next to an elderly man at the head of the party, he visually reads as an member of the group rather than as a servant or a slave. But we don’t know the true relationship, or if they are fleeing to the North or to the South.
The main gap I see in Crystal Bridges story of America is a lack of Hispanic culture (unless I missed something big). Some Latino artists are represented in the contemporary works, which I’ll address in Part III. But there is a story of America to be told that icludes the Spanish-speaking regions which joined the union in the 19th century. I suppose it’s not an historical American demographic people are particularly aware of outside of Texas and the Southwest, but it’s a rich and important history to include.
But, so far, so good.
Read Part I here: Crystal Bridges: Don Bacigalupi, Art, Arkansas, Populism and Wal Mart.
Part III – upcoming – Contemporary and modern at Crystal Bridges, the surprisingly high number of women artists in the collection, outdoor sculpture with too many animals and much, much, more…
Glasstire editor Kelly Klaasmeyer is an artist and art writer who grew up in Conway, Arkansas, a city surrounded by Toad Suck, Pickles Gap and Skunk Hollow
Really, really looking forward to seeing this for myself. Thanks for making it look so impressive.
Thank you for your continued coverage! Thus far I have not been able to convince any of my “art snob” friends to go-the crowds and the location scare them–maybe I’ll just go alone. As a former art teacher in a mainly Hispanic lower income school I do wish we had more museums of this quality available for free. So many of my students had wonderful talents and had never visited a museum or were familiar with any of our famous Hispanic artists. It was so fun to see their eyes light up when I would bring beautiful books with those works inside. They saw hope for themselves and I know that so many of them would have visited museums with their families had finances not been a obstacle. Looking forward to my visit-thanks again,Carla
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. And you are so right about exposing kids to art. Crystal Bridges has all these pleasant, comfortable seating areas that look out onto the water and are stacked with art books for everyone to flip through. It may seem like a small detail, but it is one of many that provide a casual and unintimidating environment for people to be see and learn about art. (Part III!)
Nice, observant article. I’m going in a month, and this provides a mental guide. Where is Part I to be found?
Thanks, Nancy, I think you’ll enjoy your visit. Part one is a link in the first paragraph. After unsuccessfully trying to insert the link here, I’m putting it at the end of the article.
Thanks for these informative articles and pictures of this beautiful museum! I am from Texas and attended college in Fayetteville, Ar in the 70’s and was thrilled and nervous when I heard about the Wal-Mart plans to build this Museum deep in the heart of the Ozarks. and I was lucky enough to see it during the Christmas break and fell in love with the structure! I have seen the Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs and Crystal Bridges has that same feeling of walking in the woods inside a glass structure. I’m an artist myself and I encourage all my art buddies to go see it!
Your series on CB is refreshing. As a native of Springdale, I return home from Austin frequently, and have warily watched the museum arise from the ravine…like a crustacean mating game named after some woo-woo spirituality. Long ago I left Arkansas for Dallas, hungry for art that went beyond clothesline fairs. I spotted that Oldenburg mouse on the lawn at SMU and stayed for the next 15 years, working at the Kimbell and DMA. I longed for someone to plop down a real live Monet or Van Gogh in my hometown library–people could at least relate to those masters.
Now an artist myself, my preference would be to make sculptures out of crocheted toilet paper holders, spoof the differientations of watercolored barns, or Razorback seat (throne) cushions, all venerated forms from my childhood. I went to the CB with my jadedness in hand and was amazed, mainly by the collection and its thoughtful installation. Still don’t like the copper crustacean roofs imposed upon MY landscape, but…
You nailed it, Kelly. Rarely does an arts complex this fine come forth in such an area. But more importantly, the CB museum is doing so by bringing out the best of the local culture, not demeaning it. It is gratifying to see the mix of people in there, many whose only museum visit was a day trek to Tulsa. There is a wide-eyed wonder in those galleries that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, and it is delightful. It helped me realize that this quality of the folks back home has informed my own art, along with that softly rugged landscape.
In your next episode, stroll beyond the James Turrell and linger on that nature path. The Ozarks’ beauty is a humble one, and you will be rewarded by close observation.
Thanks for your recent entry. Looking forward to your next travelogue essay. Your articles are so spot-on, in my opinion. Partly due, I assume, to your geographic heritage, but it can’t be just that. You know your stuff and write well.
As I have previously noted, several out-of-town write-ups on this place have been either so laced with anti-Walmart, 99 percenter vitriol or a geewhizedness search for hillbilly cartoonishness that one wonders if the writers came to town to review a museum or to search for a Sadie Hawkins’ day race.
I recently sent a letter to the editor of Art in America in praise of an article from a Steven Dubin on Crystal Bridges. I thought it was an excellent piece, in similar vein as your entries. Didn’t expect to hear back, but whaddya know? They are supposed to put an edited version of my letter in April’s issue. Blow me down with a watercolor brush!
To Carla Hollis…what on God’s green earth are your friends afraid of? They remind me of a New Yorker I once knew who expected to see Longhorn cattle roaming around Dallas. I assure you there is nothing to be afraid of. In Texas touchstone reference for their ease of mind, the ambiance in Bentonville and around the museum is sort of Plano/The Woodlands meets Highland Park/River Oaks meets Salado, surrounded by Missouri City/Mesquite. But prettier. All set in Ozark hills and a ravine that tops any of the above locales in scenery. Please Carla, tell your art snob friends (as I did in my letter) that basically the closed-minded ones are the ones who are to be dismissed. They totally miss the populist message of CB. As I wrote, those types “think that great art institutions shouldn’t be in places where you have to call head for a taxi” considering, like most small cities with an airport, there are taxis and car services but you can’t just step off the curb and wave one down.
Uh, and come to think of it and based on my many years of living in and doing business in Texas, don’t you have to call ahead for a taxi in Dallas and Houston?
I’ll be here in the hinterlands, waiting for your next entry, Kelly!
Ginger: As to the shiny copper roofs? Don’t despair. They are part of the plan. The patina and corrosion will naturally, over years, show itself and turn the shine into Autumn Ozark color that will match the wooded site.
PPS—recall in my last comment on Kelly’s first article that the liberals/Democrats shop at Target and the conservatives/Republicans shop at Walmart? First Lady Michelle Obama nailed the stereotype recently on Letterman. She admitted to sneaking out incognito from the WH to shop at Target. Good for her. Really. Nice to know, Kelly, that if she wanted to shop in your Houston Heights neighborhood she’d be welcomed by nearby red circles!
One more thing, Kelly. WHY did you have to remind me of the Precious Moments place?? We used to live in Joplin, right next to Carthage and near that place. I am glad I went, only because the human resources manager there was in a graduate business class with me in Joplin and she invited me and my family for a VIP tour. But oh my! I felt like I was trapped inside a gigantic Wilton cake-decorating project. Or one of those pressed sugar Easter egg dioramas.
And for the travel-challenged as to how to get here? Fly into Tulsa (for possible discount fares, though Southwest isn’t so cheap any longer these days) and drive a rental over (2 hours or less, turnpike all the way to Arkansas). You could also visit the two art museums in Tulsa that way plus get a real ‘sense of place’ on the drive over (you pass by the exit for Claremore, you know, home to fictional Aunt Eller of Rodgers/Hammerstein and also the real hometown of Helen Walton).
If you prefer to fly non-stop to Bentonville, you can do so from Houston, Dallas, Chicago, etc. into Northwest Ark Regional Airport (code: XNA) which is 20 minutes max from downtown Bentonville.
Or drive: coming from Texas viewpoint, Central Expressway out of Dallas (US 75) becomes 75/69 into Oklahoma, then from McAlester (interesting Italian food in Krebs, one mile east of McALester) it becomes 69 to I-40 at Carrie Underwood’s hometown, then I-40 east to Arkansas, then I 540 north to Shangri-la (what I call the NW Arkansas that opens up to you at the northern end of the Bobby Hopper tunnel. Lovely drive. Exactly 5 hours from the intersection of LBJ and Central in Dallas. Add 3 hours plus/minus from Houston.
Other than for some two-lane parts in Oklahoma just across the Red River, where you have to watch for some speed traps, the drive is mostly 70 mph expressway the entire trip.
Why do I know this route so well? My son is a cello major at UNT in Denton, another really, really ordinary little city yet with an unbelievable center of culture (the UNT College of Music!!).
May the road rise to meet you, friends.
Indulge me, please for coming back to the well again, but I re-read Ginger’s comment and had to relate something from my last visit to this place. Oh, so true, so true, Ginger. I have so much to learn with future visits, but even if I, as a novice, don’t know all the ins/outs of such works here I too am filled with wonder in a degree you described. Ginger wrote:
“There is a wide-eyed wonder in those galleries that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, and it is delightful. It helped me realize that this quality of the folks back home has informed my own art, along with that softly rugged landscape.”
Indeed. In a recent visit, my first in daylight hours, I happened across a local fellow in jeans, 40-ish, sporting an authentically-frayed John Deere gimme cap and a belly hanging over his belt. And he had his 12-year old son with him who was wearing a T-shirt from a local ball club. They were at the Asher Durand. The boy spoke of the men being some “fancy and important-looking men”, standing there on the rock. I told him they were indeed and that the scene was not a real place but a combination of typical elements of the Hudson River valley, much like some artists paint local scenes of the Ozarks that blend different parts of local rivers and hills. While the boy stepped over to read the commentary on the wall, I told his father briefly of the stir Kindred Spirits caused as it left NYC and how locals up there didn’t want the painting to leave. I joked with him that I thought certain New Yorkers ought to curb their comments considering how many European masterworks were taken away from Europe to hang in East Coast galleries. He looked at me and said, “If that’s how they feel, maybe some of those things need to go back across the pond.”
As I was returning from my first walk on the trails outside the museum, I saw the man and his son coming out of the rear exit of the museum. As we passed on the walkway, I asked him if he enjoyed it.
“Oh me!” was his two-letter review.
“Oh me!”…so similar to “Oh mercy” a common expression of surprise used by the Purina salesman who used to call on my father’s feed store. That economy of words said so much. The man had indeed been wide-eyed and exposed to something a farmer or mechanic in the middle of the U.S. would perhaps never had thought of experiencing before but for the accessibility. Even if he and son never return for a second visit (which I would doubt), the museum would have accomplished much, in my opinion, as it relates to any mission statement of any museum.