I have been meaning to write about the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened a few years ago in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alice Walton of Walmart fame — with help from her family’s foundation — built the 200,000-square-foot museum, designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, on her family estate, and endowed it with $1.2 billion. She also contributed from her primarily early American art collection, many of which are on display in the museum.
I believe art is our human legacy, so, I am always in favor of money for the arts — for me, a new art museum is a good use of $1.2 billion. I even question the critics, who say such a world-class museum should not be in a rural area inaccessible to many people — an elitist, self-serving argument. Every community in America deserves an art museum. One can also have reservations about the focus on America, which might be seen as a narcissistic or myopic attempt to promote American values. But there is no reason why another museum should not extend the discussion and exploration of our heritage.
On the other hand, such philanthropic acts are rarely without ulterior motives. Crystal Bridges is not a public museum. It is a private collection made available for public viewing. Many nouveau riche billionaires, such as J. Paul Getty, have amassed art and founded museums as part of their legacy and to enhance their status. The relationship between art and aristocracy, of course, has a long history. One should always question the nature of charitable funding, such as Forbes staff writer Clare O’Connor has done in her article “Walmart’s Billionaire Waltons Give Almost None of Own Cash to Family Foundation.” Are these real charities or are they tax shelters?
The Crystal Bridges Museum can be viewed as an amenity of Walmart, bringing cultural capital to where the company is headquartered and making it a place for the social entertainment of clients and executives. This is part of a larger campaign by Walmart, which also plans to build a 2,200-seat performing arts center in Bentonville — even closer to home than the Walton Art Center, which is a 35-minutes drive away in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Are these self-interests any different than the effort of Qatar’s leaders, who have tried to establish their home as a cultural center by adding museums, including ones that promote history of Qatar and Islamic arts?
So far, the Crystal Bridges’ vision has been quite conservative. The works are blandly presented in a pedantic, predictable, and traditional fashion: chronologically beginning with portraits followed by landscape paintings, etc. The result is more like a me-too collection that doesn’t challenge or add to our understanding of American art. A leading museum has to provide something more than second or third works by the same artists already well represented in major museums. Either the works have to be major examples of the artists, as found in places like MOMA, or the museum has to offer a unique vision that can redefine and shape the arts — that is, if you plan to have the artists, scholars, and enthusiasts come from afar to take part.
To give a simple example of how such a vision can exist, imagine if you walked into the Crystal Bridges and you encountered its large portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale or the landscape painting Indian Encampment by Albert Bierstadt alongside Native American arts in an earnest dialogue. Or suppose the major works in the collection were placed beside folk or outsider arts, challenging the aesthetic divide and hierarchy. It is these kinds of complexities and diversity that make up American art. I am not saying that this is the best way to present American art, but rather that there are many possibilities that can redefine the traditional depiction.
But Crystal Bridges follows a generic if successful business model. In its collection and presentation, it can even be seen as a Walmart shop. Just as that populist consumer center, imbued with American pride, brings products to the masses who couldn’t otherwise afford them, the museum brings high America art to the masses in Arkansas who have not had access. Wanting to appeal to the broadest population possible, both institutions are also more inclusive, including a variety of products to please everyone.
My hope is that, in time, this vision will change — and there have been some positive signs. For example, the museum has championed Janet Sobel, a Ukrainian-American artist whose drip painting first inspired Jackson Pollack. As such, I had looked forward to “State of the Art,” which opened on September 13, 2014 as the museum’s first exhibition not based on its permanent collection. Such exhibit should tell us more about the museum’s aspirations.
For “State of the Art,” curators Don Bacigalupi and Chad Alligood traveled to about 1,000 artist studios in 170 cities from 44 states, and they selected 227 works made since 2011 from 102 artists, about half of them art educators. Thus, they also took the news of Crystal Bridges Museum to artists and art educators across the country. Their vision in the catalog says, “What we are attempting here is to rethink the shape of contemporary art in this country.” In their travels, they solicited others for suggestions about underappreciated artists — hoping to find those who are valued and supported in their communities. Yet, the museum has not said whether they plan to buy any of the works, which makes me wonder whether the curators really believe in the project as much as they claim. Don’t these underappreciated artists deserve more? Are they not as classic and important as the traditional artworks in the museum? If not, what is the purpose of this exhibition?
Alice Walton maintained a close interest in the show and even influenced some of the decisions, as was brought up during the spotlight lecture by the curators and a discussion done for Aspen Institute. It would be interesting to see if the museum can build a vision free from her shadow. During the spotlight lecture, Alice Walton, as a star among the museum members, mentioned how the show was part of the mission to take American art to all the continents, which made the curators hesitate, and reminded me of the ambitions of Walmart.
The exhibition is split into two separate parts of the museum and supported by instructional quotes and comments, iPad exploration of some of the works, audio conversations with artists, event lectures and discussions, a symposium, a website, Apple and Google mobile apps, and a catalog. There are little truisms scattered throughout the exhibition, phrases like: “Everyday stuff reveals grace and grit” or “Personal stories open avenues for empathy.” The selection is also tied to history by reference to works in the permanent collection, which reinforces and highlights the museum’s major works.
The curators want to take the focus away from what is commonly considered the centers of the art on the west and east coasts, in such cities as New York and Los Angeles. Of course, art does exist outside of these regions. Here, the artists are broadly identified with the regions where the live: Northeast, South, West, or Midwest. This strategy reinforces the Crystal Bridges’s position as a regional museum, in the middle of the United States, in a small town, bordered by the South and the Midwest.
The selection, like the permanent collection, is meant to be entertaining and accessible. The curators described their criteria as engagement, virtuosity, and appeal. The crowd-pleasing “appeal” and the clever use of craft and “virtuosity” are present throughout the exhibition. But why have the curators, in interviews and lectures, promoted the anti-elitist rhetoric and dismissed critics and scholars? Is it a way of staking a claim for local Arkansans against urbane New Yorkers or a way to safeguard themselves against criticism? The show also recalled Crystal Bridges’s first special exhibition, “Wonder World,” where similar criteria were used to produce a charming and pleasant show. Apparently, museum going, just like shopping, is supposed to be fun, and you can take home what you have learned.
There are number of good works in the exhibition — like Vincent Valez’s The Strangest Fruit, a work haunted by the lynching of Latinos in Texas — which question important topics such as race, sex, environmental crisis, and violence. These difficult but crucial subjects are an important part of the show. Alice Walton, for example, embraced the young Afro-American Celestia Morgan’s racially charged pieces. But while these works are often thought provoking, they are not disturbing or provocative. Works that shock, such as some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos, or that seem obscure and baffling, like the ephemeral works of Richard Tuttle, are generally excluded — limiting the possibility of what a work of art can be.
Among the forbidden topics are issues of political economy and corporatization. The works don’t provide a profound investigation of class struggle or raise concerns such as the ones put forth by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They don’t destabilize the foundation of liberal democracy and corporate America or demand a radical, revolutionary change. You get strong works such as Susie J. Lee’s video portraits of fracking workers, but the works don’t offer a challenge to the prevailing corporate frackers. These works don’t critique the art institution’s relationship to business, or their own dependency on wealthy donors and corporations, as has been done by artists like Hans Haacke. Labor issues and unions are not addressed. I am not saying that artworks need to raise these issues, though many American artists are creating such works. I am only pointing out the safe domain of the selection — what Wall Street Journal critic Peter Plagens called the “PG-13 rating” of the show, missing “the gritty side of things.”
The collection did exceed my expectations, and I am glad they chose to feature contemporary art. But, afterward, I wondered what I had learned about the state of American art, apart from the curator’s optimistic vision of art in America. Great works are being produced all over the United States, but normally exhibitions have a stronger theme. They give us a sense of what is the current state of the arts: how is it different from other periods, how does it reflect the times, and what are the trends and movements. Similar conclusions and challenges are what the Whitney Biennale, with all its controversy, attempts to tackle. Blair Schulman from Huffington Post writes that the Crystal Bridges’s show “fails to invite serious analysis and critique, not just of the art, but also of the exhibition makers and their justification for such a sweeping gesture.” The curators seem to have had a great time collecting works and meeting the artists, but they haven’t come up with any appreciable analysis or findings from their extensive survey. As the museum thrives, I hope to see it gain a stronger vision, engage difficult subjects, and produce shows that advance our understanding of American art.
1. There is also the unusual and uncomfortably intrusiveness of docents, who provide sometimes troubling commentary, while trying to tell you how to experience the artwork. I hope that in time, with visitors that have already been to the museum, this edifying attitude will change.
2. In my writing here, I won’t be discussing the individual works. You can see pictures and descriptions of the works on the website.
[Images are from my visit to the museum or from Crystal Bridges’ website.]