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.
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.
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.