In the American Grain: Art and Capital at Crystal Bridges

Building the collection by Laura Beach

About three years ago, founding curator Christopher B. Crosman created a digital mockup suggesting how the galleries of the new Crystal Bridges Museum might appear once its growing collection, most of it in storage, was installed.

"It was startling, especially to Alice Walton," says John Wilmerding, the emeritus professor of American art at Princeton who began advising the Walmart heiress in 2004, a year before she purchased Asher B. Durand's iconic landscape Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library in a sealed-bid auction arranged by Sotheby's.

Intent on building a survey collection of American masterworks, Walton turned her at­tention to contemporary art to redress what she saw as an imbalance in the richly historical as­semblage. She visited contemporary artists-Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Will Barnet, and James Turrell, among them-and invited Mark di Suvero to install his steel sculpture Lowell's Ocean on the museum's lawn, where it may be viewed from the North Bridge.

Walton's decisive pivot was characteristic of a disciplined, intuitive collector who, by all ac­counts, knows her mind and acts accordingly. "No Berenson or Duveen formed this collection," says Wilmerding, who relinquished his formal advisory role when he joined the museum's board of directors in 2009. Don Bacigalupi, a contem­porary arts expert who formerly directed the Toledo Museum of Art, heads a growing, ninety-one-person staff. He replaced founding director Robert G. Workman in 2009. Director of cura­torial, David Houston, an expert in late twentieth-century American art, arrived at Crystal Bridges in February after serving at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. Named curator of American art in March, Kevin Murphy, a nineteenth-century expert, came from the Hun­tington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in California. Crosman, who previ­ously directed the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine, has stayed on as curator of collections.

"Alice really has an eye for American paint­ing. She understands landscapes in a way that I have seldom encountered. For years, we discussed the possibility of her building a public collection," says Barbara Guggenheim, the New York and Los Angeles-based arts consultant who, beginning in 1990, was among the first to advise Walton on her personal col­lection, which parallels the museum's holdings but contains little in the way of decorative art.

Crystal Bridges spent nearly $300 million on acquisitions between its founding in 2004 and 2008-as of August-it had confirmed only seventy-one. The museum's long silence stirred speculation about Crystal Bridges's buying activities, speculation that is likely to subside now that the museum is open.

Walton has been a formidable auction pres­ence since 2004, when she spent nearly $15 million on canvases by John Singer Sargent and Charles Willson Peale at New York's spring sales. Sotheby's director of American art, Dara Mitch­ell, and her counterpart at Christie's, Eric P. Widing, relayed the collector's bids and helped broker private deals on pieces offered to Walton by individuals and institutions. Professor Benja­min Howard Rand, Thomas Eakins's first medical portrait, was one of many such private transactions.

Public records document gifts to the museum from the fine arts dealers John Driscoll, owner of Babcock Galleries, and Warren Adelson of Adelson Galleries, as well as from William Reese, a New Haven, Connecticut-based dealer in antiquarian books. Reese is helping to build the museum's already prodigious American arts research library. Like other prominent members of the trade, these people acknowledged selling to Crystal Bridges but, citing confidentiality agreements, declined to give specifics.

"This is not the finish line. The collection is barely seven years old," says Houston, noting that "as a curator, you see the collection breathe and take on an identity only when it is installed."

Based on its $800 million endowment, Crystal Bridges is predicted to have an annual acquisitions budget of roughly $15 million. Enhanced by gifts from the Walton family and others, the figure is enough to ensure that wish-list items such as a major Jackson Pollock drip painting or important oils by George Caleb Bingham and Edward Hopper may find their way to Bentonville.

 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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