In the American Grain: Art and Capital at Crystal Bridges

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011 |

The small town of Bentonville, Arkansas, home to some 35,301 souls in the most recent census, is about to be transformed beyond recognition. Already it enjoys some modicum of renown as the ancestral abode of the Walton fam­ily: its late patriarch, Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, opened his first five and dime here over half a century ago. Now con­verted into a museum and visitors' center, this inaugural store continues to overlook the main square, with its statue com­memorating "The Southern Soldier" in the War Between the States. People come from all over the country, not in droves, but surely in a respectable trickle, to see this haut lieu of American capitalism. But if Walmart, whose corporate head­quarters are still located in town, put Bentonville on the map, the family's latest venture, a museum of American art that opens this month, may transform the place, virtually overnight, into one of the most important cultural centers in the nation.

Although the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was developed by a number of philanthropic organizations-most of them connected to Walmart-it is overwhelm­ingly the creation of Alice Walton, Sam's sixty-two-year-old daughter. Together with her two brothers, she has inherited the bulk of the family fortune, which in her case alone is said to exceed $20 billion. Con­siderations of money are, of course, unavoidable with regard to Walton, to the entire Walmart mystique, and perhaps to Crystal Bridges most of all. For better or worse, money has become the fourth dimension of visual art in general, but it seems especially relevant to the approximately four hundred works now on view at Crystal Bridges, roughly half of the entire collection to date. The official endowment for acqui­sitions alone exceeds $300 million and you may be sure that there is not an auction house or dealer in American art of any era who is not keenly aware of every move the museum makes.But the sheer power of money is also evident in the size and the very craftsmanship of the buildings that house the art, in the quality of the library (whose more than fifty-five thousand books and ephemera already make it perhaps the best resource for American art anywhere in the world), and not least in the professionalism and priestly competence of the curatorial staff, headed by Don Bacigalupi.

The first myth to be dispelled as you enter Crystal Bridges is that it is all some vanity venture, a well-meaning folly rising in the middle of nowhere. Though some of the art comes from Alice Walton's private col­lection (and by all accounts she has highly developed, even exquisite taste), most of it has been acquired specifically for the museum by a curatorial committee initially led by John Wilmerding, the doyen of Amer­ican art. In this regard Crystal Bridges is less like the Louvre or the Uffizi (that is, a hodge-podge of royal collections in which greatness and mediocrity hang side by side) than it is like the National Gallery in London. That collection, founded in 1824, was assembled by a group of curators with an almost metaphysical instinct for excellence, all the more rare in that it required ex­pertise in every arena of European painting from Duc­cio in the thirteenth century to Turner in the nineteenth.

Like London's National Gallery, Crystal Bridges comprises mainly paintings, though it has a higher percentage of sculptures than the Na­tional Gallery. They are especially prominent in the contemporary art galleries, where the collection is also strong in installations. The curators have set themselves the difficult task of acquiring works that are at once historically significant and visually beautiful, and they have succeeded on both grounds. In fact it is hard to recall any recent collection, or many older collections, in which the now conservative criterion of beauty is so heroically defended in the face of a cultural main­stream that prefers confrontation and the spurious appearance of "relevance."

The art is displayed chronologically, as well as by genre within each chronological context. As you enter the first gallery, a place of curving walls, spacious van­tage points, and soothing wood tones, you find six colonial portraits of the Levy-Frank family attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck I (see Figs. 5, 6). Nearby are several more august portraits by John Singleton Copley (see Fig. 3) and a little further along, an entire wall of diminutive Brazilian nature studies by Martin Johnson Heade, an artist in whom the collection is especially strong. The Hudson River school is represented in depth by exemplary works by the likes of Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Asher B. Durand, whose famous Kindred Spirits (Fig. 8) was purchased from the New York Public Library in 2005 for more than $35 million, amid much controversy from New Yorkers who were dismayed to see it leave town. The collection proceeds through American impressionists like William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent (see Fig. 9), to early modernists like Marsden Hartley, Charles Sheeler (Fig. 11), and John Marin. As a testament to the museum's catholicity, it has also acquired Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter (1943) and Maxfield Par­rish's lovely Lantern Bearers of 1908.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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