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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and that new Museum smell

There are a lot of things that make the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art different.  Inseparable from the museum is it’s location in Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters to one of the world’s most controversial companies: Wal-Mart.  In a town built on ruthless discounts and relentless efficiencies, Crystal Bridges is an elegant surprise.  Most surprising is the collection itself.

At Crystal Bridges the exclusively American collection fosters a special kinship with art. That the art is all American, makes it seem a little closer and more familiar — almost like experiencing the history of the United States first-hand.

First Impressions 

The Crystal Bridges facade

Looking down from the observation platform three stories up, the twin tortellini-shaped roofs of Crystal Bridges are a memorable façade. The concave rooftops of the other two wings continue the slope of the surrounding hills, ending as abruptly as a ski jump.  The rooftop façade of these four buildings extends the ebb and flow of the Ozark hills that surround the museum on all sides.

The waters of the eponymous Crystal Springs have been diverted into a man-made lake resting at the bottom of the ravine.  The two wings with the hill-shaped roofs are elevated so they form bridges over the lake. These four wings connect to form a square with a reflective watery courtyard in the middle.

Deliciously syrupy Arkansas accents and the Midwestern hospitality of the museum staff are as distinctly a part of the experience as is the rugged landscape.  A greeter welcomes you into the gallery by explaining a few points of museum etiquette: 18 inches away from the paintings at all times, please.  Museum guards also have a more informal, customer service disposition.  There are wandering docents who may sidle up to provide context for the various paintings in the gallery.  It all combines to form an oddly retail experience that is reminiscent of… well, I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Director of Education, Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, explains that the presence of the docents, the free admission, everything about the museum is engineered to tear away barriers to the museum for a region that has never had a major art museum before.

The Main Galleries

Visible from the entrance hall, the collection starts with a staple of American history books: George Wilson Peale’s portrait of George Washington at Yorktown.  The first paintings are unsurprisingly formal portraits, the earliest of which (from the 17th century) demonstrates an almost medieval flatness.  Neo-classical style portraits of Native American and early American leaders are displayed together; the highlight of the group being the familiar face of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.

war_news_498

Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825-1855). War News from Mexico, 1848. Oil on canvas. 27 x 25 in. (68.6 x 63.5 cm). Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Of the early part of the collection, Curator Kevin Murphy points out, “Artists in this era are helping to shape what it means to be a colonist, and what it means to be far away from their mother lands.”  This break begins almost imperceptibly with a distinctly American squirrel on a golden leash in a portrait by John Singleton Copely and continues with portrayals of raucous tavern-style Jacksonian Democracy.  In the painting, “War News from Mexico”, by Richard Caton Woodville, Kevin points out that if you look closely, you can see “Tavern” was painted over and replaced with Post Office.  Women and slaves are portrayed poignantly as onlookers in this national conversation, but in which they don’t have a voice.   “War News from Mexico” was painted in 1848; on the other side of the gallery is museum-favorite, Asher B. Durand’s painting “Kindred Spirits” from 1849.  In organizing the galleries, the curators have tried to pull out common themes in favor of chronology as demonstrated by the separation of these two works painted just a year apart.

Kindred Spirits exemplifies the Hudson River School of mid 19th century landscape paintings.  A collaborative partnership was recently announced between several museums, including the Louvre and Crystal Bridges, beginning with traveling exhibition starting at the Louvre to explore the Hudson RiverSchool and the origins of American Landscape painting.

The Late 19th Century gallery highlights different themes through its division into three sections: landscape paintings, portrayals of women and a pleasantly man-cave mélange of tromp d’oeil and genre paintings.  The stiffness of the more formal European style portraits takes a sharply more casual turn with genre paintings (portraying everyday life).  The progression from how women are portrayed as nearly an extension of serene landscape to a more individual subjects is brought out interestingly by artists such as Alfred Maurer and Sargent.

If there is a show stopper in the museum, it is The Early 20th Century gallery.  The cacophony of styles, artists, and subjects is wonderfully overwhelming.  The mixture of movements with European roots such as Abstraction, and Cubism, are combined with distinctly American styles of the Ash Can School, and Regionalism.

In the final gallery of the permanent collection, 20th Century Art, oversized paintings that anchor so many post war collections here are a bit thin.  Although the gallery has a different feel, well-suited to oversized constructions and canvasses, it doesn’t have the expected brand names of the period.  The most formidable part of this section is the more intimate corridor-style side galleries. Unlike traditional museum spaces where the galleries are stacked on top of each other, Crystal Bridges has a richness of transition spaces, side galleries and think spaces that allow for contemplation and a deeper exploration of themes.

Secondary Spaces

It would be easy to spend the better part of a day at Crystal Bridges.  Its secondary spaces are terrific places to digest and reflect before getting back to the permanent collection.  Despite the inviting furniture to sit on and the trails that are a part of the 120 acres of museum grounds, there is no rest for the eyes, as the gorgeous landscape and architecture are always so immediate.

There is a charming side gallery devoted to local Arkansas themes.  The mini-exhibition, The Ballad of the Arkansas Traveler, is on display in conjunction with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  The ballad which became popular in the 1850s as a celebration of the earlier frontier days of Arkansas, a few decades later the Arkansas Traveler became something of a state Albatross. listeningg

Downstairs there is a drop in play area where children can explore the collection through a series of “high touch, low tech” stations. Mrs. Kathlynn Walton (no relation to the Wal-Mart Waltons) an art teacher from nearby Centerton Gamble Elementary was there with students from her 4th and 5th grade classes to be a focus group for the facilities. One example is a computer program that gives children step-by-step auditory instructions to draw paintings on display; another popular example among Ms. Walton’s class is a magnetic storyboard of paintings that can be arranged into a narrative.  There is also a cafeteria style art studio for families to make their own original creations.  The drop-in arrangement is meant to create a more casual space that will lower barriers for families to “play with new ideas,” as Education Director Niki Ciccotelli Stewart phrases it.

Either as an art-break or as a destination in and of itself, the museum grounds are also home to six short trails that celebrate the beauty of this corner of the “ Natural State”. In addition to providing a beautifully manicured appreciation for the Ozarks, the trails showcase the architecture of the museum designed by architect Moshe Safdie.  There are a variety of sculptures with interpretative material along the way.  The less than 2 mile “Crystal Bridges Trail” is a footpath/bike path into downtown Bentonville.  The highlight of the trails is The Way of Color, by James Turrell on the 1/3 mile ArtTrail.  The “Skyspace” building is illuminated in different colors during the sun rise and sun set.  Through an aperture in the roof, the sunlight combined with elements of the circular building, channels the outside conditions producing spectacular light show at dawn and dusk.  The museum doesn’t open until 11 but the trials are open starting at sunrise. Eleven

Under one of the billowing roofs are the coffee shop and the museum restaurant, “Eleven,” named in honor of the museum’s opening date 11-11-11.  The coffee shop has all of the expected sources of caffeine deliciousness and simple, hearty snacks.  The menus lean very heavily to the South although sweetened iced tea is incongruously unavailable.  The lunch menu is limited; the dinner menu is more robust.  Sunday Brunch kicks off “Family Day” at the museum, with family programs throughout the day.  There also picnic lunches available for purchase that can be enjoyed on the museum grounds.

In the End, What is Crystal Bridges?

Crystal Bridges staff insists the museum just past the Wal-Mart museum and the Wal-Mart employee store and the Wal-Mart distribution center, whose free admission is funded by Wal-Mart and built by Wal-Mart scion, Alice Walton has nothing to do with Wal-Mart.  This insistence on the lack of relationship between Wal-Mart and Crystal Bridges borders on the Orwellian.  Be that as it may, writing off the museum as Alice Walton’s Xanadu or as a casualty in the culture war (as some have) would be a mistake, no matter what your politics.

The permanent collection of American art is universally hailed as one of the top 10 in the world.  But the strength of the comprehensive collection is more than just bragging rights — it can be disorienting to look at samples from every continent and every time frame jammed together in the local city art museum.  But the exclusively American art at Crystal Bridges has a tangible feeling of familiarity.  City art museums trying to represent so many constituencies and schools often feel dyspeptically forced.  Crystal Bridges explores gender, Native American, and African-American themes in a way that feels like a conversation, not just a conversation piece.  Curator Kevin Murphy points out that curators, unlike professors, have the opportunity to teach in 3D. Final

As the profile of the Ozarks is raised by author Daniel Woodward, the award-winning film “Winter’s Bone” and nearby Branson, Missouri, the Ozarks are already seeing a broader audience.  The museum blends into the beautiful Ozark hills that were a treasure of my childhood vacations.  At the same time, Crystal Bridges is set to transform the cultural landscape of the region and enrich understanding of American art history in the world.

Its birth in controversy makes it feel insincere not to see Crystal Bridges simultaneously as an oasis and a mirage.  The Crystal Bridges Museum has been making waves in the art world long before it opened. A part of the Crystal Bridges controversy is that this first-rate collection of American art is squirreled away in Bentonville, Arkansas.  Another lightning rod is billionaire Alice Walton, the creator of the museum and according to Forbes, the third richest woman in the world.  But to dismiss Crystal Bridges would be a small-minded sacrifice of something that is even bigger than the world’s largest company.

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