It was my pleasure to visit the recently opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as the Fred R. Jones Museum on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman and the Gilcrease and Philbrook museums in Tulsa while on a trip sponsored by the Amon Carter Museum. It was a special treat to visit these museums with others interested and knowledgeable about art.
By now the whole world knows that there is a brand new museum called Crystal Bridges, located in out-of-the-way, Bentonville, Arkansas, conceived by Wal-Mart heiress, Alice Walton, and richly endowed by the Walton Family Foundation. Admission to the museum is free. Bentonville, Arkansas, is the home of Wal-Mart headquarters and the five-and-dime store, now the Wal-Mart Museum, where Sam Walton started the business which became the largest retailer in the world. Incidentally, Bentonville is named after the nineteenth century's Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. He was the great uncle of the 1930s regional artist, Thomas Hart Benton. Wal-Mart’s success story had depended heavily on it location in small towns. Crystal Bridges’ location seems to say that America’s small towns are no less deserving or receptive of fabulous art than its urban centers. Indeed since its opening in November, 2011, Crystal Bridges has had 800,000 visitors, an attendance record to be envied by other institutions.
Crystal Bridges is a serious museum with a serious collection. Museum Director, Dan Bacigalupi, led the tour for the Amon Carter visitors. The scope of the collection is American art from its beginnings up to the present time. Many early works are, not surprisingly, portraits. There’s a wonderful Charles Wilson Peale portrait of a younger than usually portrayed, George Washington, around 1780-82, with his hand on a cannon (watch out, you Brits!). There are wonderful early portraits of native Americans by Charles Bird King, and an enigmatic, but outstanding portrait of Robert Lewis Stevenson and his wife by John Singer Sargent.
You can see Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits depicting poet William Cullen Bryant and painter Thomas Cole atop a cliff in the Adirondacks overlooking a pristine America. Now considered a gem of the Hudson River School this painting's purchase for $35,000,000 from the New York Public Library caused a firestorm of resentment and talk of the state losing its patrimony. (Incidentally, I saw maybe thirty Asher Durans on the second floor of the New York Historical Society several years ago. It couldn't hurt to spread some of them around the rest of the country to be enjoyed by others.) Perhaps because of this or perhaps not, Crystal Bridges has entered into joint use of collections with financially troubled institutions such as the Fisk University collection in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Randolph-Macon Museum in Lynchberg, Virginia.
In case you wondered where the original Rosie the Riveter was, the one by Norman Rockwell, she takes up a whole wall in the Crystal Bridges Museum. And she's not the cutey pie depicted on stamps and so often in feminist literature telling us "she can do it." This Rosie has attitude! The collection goes right up to the present day with a disturbing Kara Walker, It Was a Warm Summer Day in 1863. One of Ms. Walker's black felt silhouettes of a hanging woman is in a black and white painting of a race riot. The list goes on and on with Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, indeed anyone you ever heard of and many you haven't.
One of the most interesting rooms was better for history than for art. Called The Arkansas Traveler, it traces the stereotype of Arkansans as ignorant, whiskey drinking, coonskin wearing louts who lay about while a hole in the cabin roof goes unrepaired. The myth goes all the way back to the presidential election of 1840 when William Henry Harrison defeated President Martin Van Buren (Tippecanoe and Tyler too). The Arkansas Traveler, a consumate hillbilly, is celebrated in song, play, joke, politics, and art. Could it still be in people's minds when a new museum with an almost endless budget competes away from the usual art cities?
All of this is in a beautiful 120 acre pastoral setting of native plants with walking trails, ponds, streams and wetlands. Crystal Bridges Museum itself is built over small bodies of water. The grounds abound with first rate sculpture. There’s James Turrell’s Skyspace, the Way of Color, works by Dan Ostermiller, Robert Tanen, and Andre Harvey who gives us is a lifelike hog, not a razorback.
The museum is approached by a winding trail weaving through the woods. There the visitor is met by a life-sized, barren tree, made of stainless steel, by sculptor Roxy Paine, the only decoration to mark the entrance. No recumbent lions recalling ancient times, no name in Roman fonts, just a curving driveway to deliver the patron to an outside porch? loggia? entrance way? which walks you to the elevator taking you down to the galleries and main part of the museum. Israeli born Canadian citizen Moise Safdie is the architect responsible for this masterpiece. You have to see for yourself for full appreciation of the result. But if nicknames express fondness, it’s worth noting that the museum is already being called "The Armadillo". And it has a non-circulating library whose catalog may be accessed at http://crystalbridges.org/library
By Gwen Dixie, Librarian, Dallas Public Library