In the American Grain: Art and Capital at Crystal Bridges

Though Crystal Bridges can boast some important acquisitions from the mid- and late twentieth century, among them Arshile Gorky's Composition (Still Life), from 1936-1937 and Andy Warhol's Dolly Parton from 1985 (Fig. 2), contemporary art is the area in which the museum makes what may be its most notable and innovative contribution. In this critic's experience, most collectors of contemporary art, from Eli Broad to François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, pursue the same twenty artists, whose work appeals more through its clamorous contemporaneity than through any deeper visual consequence or skill. Given that their collections are inspired by and influence in their turn what is seen around the world in art fairs, galleries, and museums, one could be excused for thinking that these costly artifacts rep­resent the reality and the totality of contemporary art.

But at Crystal Bridges another narrative unfolds. Many of the artists are the usual "blue chip" suspects: the likes of Jenny Holzer and Kara Walker, Jim Dine and Chuck Close. But the collection includes such other artists, also prominent though less well known, as Tom Uttech and Alison Elizabeth Tay­lor, Walton Ford (Fig. 10), and Nick Cave. Astoundingly, all of them display-at least in the works on view-a deep sense of visual excellence and an attention to the craft and manufacture of their art that we no longer expect to find in the work of our contemporaries. Though the museum's mission is the display of American art, rather than contemporary art as such, I am aware of no other collection of the latter that-through a commitment to beauty-makes so eloquent a case for its enduring consequence.

In accomplishing this goal, the collection is greatly aided by the architectural context in which it occurs. Occupying 120 acres of nearly untouched parkland (whose trails connect the museum to the center of town), Crystal Bridges comprises ten structures and pavilions that sit upon or are surrounded by the waters of Crystal Spring. The museum's name comes from the fact that two of these structures, a gallery and a restaurant and hospitality facilities, span the waters in the form of bridges. The architect who cre­ated them is the seventy-three-year-old Canadian Moshe Safdie, who was handpicked by Alice Walton after she visited the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which he designed. Safdie studied under Louis Kahn and his debt is evident in Crystal Bridges, no less than at the Skirball. Both complexes are made up of smaller architectural units, marked by an evocative neo-brutalist use of concrete, as well as by a sensitive use of organic materials. In the case of Crystal Bridges, this consists in the refined use throughout of accents in western red cedar, especially in the coursing lines that run along the facades of the structures, which are arranged in a largely circular configuration. The result is a model of modesty and beauty. Though it exhibits none of the gimmickry we have come to expect from such recent mu­seums as Zaha Hadid's MAXXI in Rome or Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, it succeeds in being scenographic without being vulgarly theatrical. And best of all, unlike the MAXXI or the Guggenheim, it serves, rather than subverts, the art that it contains.

Away from Bentonville, there have been some mus­ings about whether Crystal Bridges is-even sublimi­nally-an attempt to purify or redeem an empire founded upon lucre and upon the controversial conquest of mom and pop stores around the country, indeed around the world. Or perhaps it can be read as an act of atonement for Walmart's littering the planet with huge drab sheds devoted to commerce. But once you are inside the town, and especially inside the museum, such speculations evaporate. You have the vivid sense that neither Alice Walton nor anyone else in the fam­ily, nor for that matter anyone in this part of Arkansas, feels that Walmart has anything to apologize for. A more plausible motive, one that made more sense to earlier generations but that still holds sway in these parts, is that the Walton family is animated by a vital mix of national patriotism and local pride.

Though Alice Walton spends much of her time these days in neighboring Texas, she appears, like the rest of her family, to feel deeply rooted in northwest Arkansas. Perhaps the closest anal­ogy to her family's relation to Bentonville is the relation of the Medici to Florence or the Visconti to Verona or the Sforzas to Milan. Though the Waltons hold no public office, it is clear to everyone that they are the first citizens: Bentonville's largest thoroughfare is Walton Boulevard, and rare is the public project, from the new Highway 71 and the local airport's sparkling new terminal to any number of public school programs and cultural events, that does not have Walton money behind it.

At Crystal Bridges Alice Walton has embarked on what may well prove to be one of the most ambitious acts of cultural development in mod­ern times. She has sought to create, and she has succeeded in creating, perhaps the finest single collection of American art in the world, housed in a world class museum. As importantly, she has sought to transform the small town in which she was raised into a cultural capital of sorts. Already new restaurants and boutique hotels are arising amid the lovely late Victorian gentility of the town's center (curatorially preserved with Walton money). Even with the recently completed high­way, Bentonville is not easy to reach: but it is about to assume a cultural consequence, through­out the United States and beyond, that no one-or perhaps only one person-could have imagined as recently as seven years ago.

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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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