“It’s As If We Were Country Bumpkins Who Didn’t Appreciate Art”: The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Installation with Dale Chihuly glass work

I remember clearly the brouhaha in Philadelphia over heiress Alice Walton’s attempt to purchase Eakins’s The Gross Clinic for the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Behind the claims that the painting was part of Philadelphia’s patrimony, were the barely veiled sneers about the painting being displayed in northwest Arkansas. Alice Walton was, without irony, described as a robber baron, all but stealing works of art in this WHYY piece. As noted in this 2007 piece in the UK’s Independent about the controversies surrounded her art-buying spree, “It would be one thing if Walton was the scion of an established East Coast family, a robber baron in the grand tradition of American capitalism who at least had the good taste to settle in a action of recognizable civilization, such as New York, or Washington, or San Francisco.”

But not Bentonville, Arkansas. As Pete’s cousin who has spent most of her life in nearby Fort Smith, Arkansas, said to us during our visit, it was insulting to hear the controversy over the proposal to build a world class museum in Arkansas. “It’s as if we were country bumpkins who didn’t appreciate art,” she said, adding that she visits Crystal Bridges often.

Well, Arkansas got the last laugh. Designed by Moshe Safdie, Crystal Bridges is an exquisite gem of a museum, a set piece of curving graceful structures hovering over natural spring waters in a lush 120-acre park that is within walking distance of downtown Bentonville.

In addition to the retreat-like setting, the Museum offers a captivating and somewhat iconoclastic introduction to American art. As noted in this Washington Post piece, “[p]erhaps the most notable change..is the astonishing mix of work by artists who are not white men throughout the museum…But it’s not the crude metrics of race and gender that matter, rather it’s the utterly new narrative of contemporary art that emerges from the museum’s conscious and thorough effort at inclusivity..[the pieces] look like they belong to an evolving, historical conversation about the visual world..”

One example of this is the gallery which explores early American portraiture and juxtaposes Howard Finster’s George Washington with the more famous image by Charles Wilson Peale. Another gallery explores the evolving concept of Beauty by placing together images filling a high-ceilings gallery with a dizzying array of faces and bodies across generations and communities of artists.

The gorgeous temporary exhibition that was on display while we were there, Crafting America, also drew linkages between artists, blurring the artificial lines between “art” and “craft”. These pieces all had stories to tell, such as these two pieces below. Some may recognize the work of George Nakashima, but few probably knew that he learned traditional Japanese woodworking from Gentaro Hikogawa while incarcerated in a concentration camp in Idaho during World War II. For his part, Mr Hikogawa made the chest of drawers shown next to the Nakashima piece while incarcerated, using scrap wood from packing crates and salvaged brush.

The Crystal Bridges collection includes significant Native American and indigenous work, such as this monumental vessel by San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez, shown in conversation with a more recent blown glass piece by Joe Fedderson

Martinez on the left, Fedderson on the right.

Or this quilt piece from Gina Adams “Broken Treaty Seríes”, in which Adams stitches letters cut from calico fabrics on both the front and back of antique quilts, using language from treaties that Native Americans were forced to sign (and which the US Government promptly violated anyway. This one is Treaty with the Yankton Sioux, 1837.

On a quiet Friday night, Pete and I practically had the galleries to ourselves, save a few small groups that seemed to be in town for University of Arkansas graduation. The super-friendly staff almost seemed to be welcoming us into their home.

Sonya Clark’s Beaded Prayers Project, a participatory art project since 1999. Each beaded bag contains individual prayers of participants

The debate from fifteen years ago over whether Alice Walton was robber baron for scooping up masterpieces for cash so that Arkansans can enjoy world-class art seems almost quaint as museums around the world strip the Sackler name from their galleries, and the British Museum can still claim that pillaging the Elgin Marbles was a “creative act.” I’m no defender of Walmart, and have the economic privilege to never have to shop in one, but as a first-time visitor to Bentonville, I’m sure glad a whole boatload of Walton money went into this museum for the people of Arkansas (and the rest of us).

Qué me ves, by Einar de la Torre and Jamex de la Torre

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