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.
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.
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 River School 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are the best movies I saw on Netflix in 2015.
It always bothered me that all of the characters on Friends were living this glamorous Manhattan lifestyle when they had such crappy jobs. Frances Ha doesn’t sugarcoat how expensive and how hard it is to live in New York. The scene where Frances’ credit card gets rejected made my heart sing. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is clearly not in life’s fast lane and we see hipster Brooklyn / yuppie Manhattan from her perspective, yea for normal people! We all love to hate hipsters (I’m looking at you, Austin) but as Frances’ circle of friends and acquaintances expands, Frances goes from looking like a quirky outsider to potentially needing an intervention. As she goes from one bad break to the next, Frances accelerates the downward spiral by making each bad situation far worse. It’s not cute or endearing – it’s kind of scary and pathetic. The film eventually reaches an inflection point, is this a quirky character beats the odds kind of movie or a lovable character hits bottom movie?
Director Noah Baumbach has made those awkward in-between stages of life something of a specialty (think of John Hughes but as with dramas not comedies). In fact, for a film with such a thin plot, which focuses almost exclusively on one character, it paints a very detailed portrait very quickly. Filming in black and white on the busy city streets gives the film a blurry, fast feel.
When a movie’s title has the main character’s name, you can bet that you will be spending a lot of time with them; Frances Ha is no exception. Greta Gerwig is in literally every scene of the movie. Frances is a newly single, struggling (and not very graceful) dancer. Her best friend and flat-mate recently moved to a new apartment in fashionable Tribeca and got engaged. Frances’ life is upended. Although Gerwig’s does a great job of conveying a lot of information in these quotidian scenes, there is something missing. For someone circling the drain, she seems delusionally too comfortable in her own skin. It is easy to be of two minds about Frances, but the rest of the cast is made up of unsympathetic (even by New York standards) characters. When Frances turns the corner from being Bridget Jones and becomes self destructive, the audience is left with no one to root for.
Frances Ha ends on an upbeat note, without exactly having a happy ending. Baumbaugh resists the temptation of going for a cheap rescue ending that allow us to assume that her change in fortune means that she is a better person for her struggle. Baumbach stays on message and within reality, making Frances Ha the anti-Bridget Jones. When Frances hits bottom with style, ordinary events once again conspire to sap what should have been a cool episode into something completely unsatisfying and wasted.
So is Frances Ha worth it? While the film’s realism is a nice change of pace, ultimately there isn’t a lot of “there” there. Even as a date movie, I’m not sure there is much to talk about over drinks afterwards. In life it really is about the little things; at the movies, there is such a thing as too little.
Jay Gatsby is one of those mysterious figures who, as they become revealed to us, reveal something about us. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Jay Gatsby, delivers a performance that stays true to the myth of the man while allowing us to pick apart the myths that are his bane. Despite the nuance and strength of DiCaprio’s performance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is far bigger than just the story of a man and DiCaprio can only take the movie so far.
The story goes like this: Jay Gatsby was poor when he met and fell in love with the Louisville debutante Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan). While Gatsby was trying to climb the socio/economic ladder, old money Tom Buchanan (Joel Egerton) swooped in and stole Daisy away. Gatsby has made his fortune; now that he is worthy of Daisy’s love, he is ready to pick up from where they left off. Everything Gatsby does including the wild parties at his mansion every weekend are all geared towards getting Daisy’s attention. What could possibly go wrong? The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who becomes Gatsby’s go-between in rekindling the relationship with Daisy. Through Nick’s eyes we see the whole picture.
If you have seen the previews for the film (and you have) you have undoubtedly seen shots of the outrageous parties that make Gatsby a legend. While the outstanding dancing and music is amazing, it doesn’t feel like decadence — it feels like hard work and endless practice. The Broadway-style song & dance aren’t helped by the peripatetic camera-work. Combined it is all too much, which diminishes the power of what is supposed to be the best part of the movie.
In adapting the novel, director Baz Luhrman has made some controversial choices. He tries to keep the heavy writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald with copious amounts of narration. With such famous prose at the beginning and end of the film, narration was probably inevitable (and made even more inevitable by casting Mr. wide-eyed moralist himself Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway). But film is a visual medium, and when you are adapting a book you have to show, not tell. The narration in the middle of the film is an interruption and Tobey Maguire is a twerp.
I could live with all of that, but it is Luhrman’s interpretation that really turned me off. I just reread the Great Gatsby again last week. Among my many disappointments, the biggest is the diminished importance of the Jordan Baker character. It is made even more disappointing because the sexy, complicated performance by Elizabeth Debicki that left me wanting more. Old friends with Daisy back in the Louisville days; Jordan didn’t marry into the elite strata. In the novel, she cheated and lied her way to the top of professional golf circuit only to get caught and become disgraced. As the embodiment of the different set of rules that apply to the rich and powerful, she gives a defense of recklessness as chilling and memorable as Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal “Let them eat cake.” Unforgivably, none of this is included in the film.
The parallels, the links, the way it is woven together are what makes The Great Gatsby, well, great. It doesn’t just hold up a mirror to us as individuals, it holds up a mirror for an entire era, an entire country. You don’t have to get into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impasto symbolism to understand that he is writing about what is all around us — still around us today.
Would I recommend seeing Gatsby? Yeah, I would recommend it. It is a big movie with a $127 million budget that people are going to have an opinion about.
In the novel, the Great Gatsby, nothing is what it seems; in the film by Baz Luhrman, everything is exactly what it seems. The creativity and inventiveness Luhrman displayed in his earlier hits, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, has been drown out in a true stroke of irony, by money and ambition.
Sargent is best known for his insightful portraits. His usual studied approach is abandoned here to capture a fleeting voyeuristic moment. It is a painting that pulls you closer and simultaneously keeps you at a distance.
The recent openings of the Winspear, the Perot Museum and the brand new Klyde Warren Park usher in a new era for downtown Dallas. Just down the street from the Perot, and caddy corner from KWP is a more inconspicuous update to this thriving area: The Economy in Action Exhibit at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, open since October.
Alexander Johnson, Media Coordinator at the Dallas Fed, explains that Economy in Action, “explores the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve.” To clarify, the 12 District locations of the Federal Reserve Bank are part of the economic policy making structure, while the Bureau of Engraving in Fort Worth mints money. To drool over page after page of crisp new hundreds roll off the presses, you would need to be 37 miles away at the Fort Worth Mint.
Behind the visitor’s desk at the Dallas Fed is a nicely done collage introducing the 11th district composed of southern New Mexico, northern Louisiana and all of Texas. Throughout the lobby is a rather plain, but still interesting history of both US and Texas currency replete with monetary factoids. Did you that “HAWAII” was printed on all Hawaiian currency during WWII so that if Japan invaded Hawaii the currency could be voided?
The Money in Action exhibit starts in the 18th century with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson squaring off pro and con (respectively) about whether it is necessary to establish a central bank. Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, ultimately wins the argument, with The First Bank of the United States being established in 1791. Fifty years later President Andrew Jackson succeeded in disbanding The Second Bank of the United States, eliminating central banking from the US economy.
After the central bank was quashed, banking shenanigans ensued and the United States lurched from one recession to another. Another surprising fact is that between the Civil War and WWI the US was in recession half the time? In 1913, the modern Federal Reserve was established and will celebrate its centennial on December 23. There is an interesting exhibit about how the Fed cities were chosen. There is an legendary story about the elaborately orchestrated “accidental” train meeting that led to Dallas being named as a location for one of the Fed’s district offices – sorry, New Orleans.
The exhibition glosses over 20th century economic history of the US with a mural and moves on to explain the Fed’s mission and how it functions. This is the most interesting part of the exhibition. However, this presentation of the modern Federal Reserve, seems to use the obscure economic history explored in the first part of the exhibit as a didactic foil to explain the Fed’s role in the modern economy. Don’t like the Fed? Here’s what the economy looked like without us.
Compared to the state of the art museums in the neighborhood, the Money in Action exhibit feels clunky. Unlike the currency display in the lobby (walk and read), Economy in Action exhibit is highly interactive. There are loads of short videos, sound clips, fun facts etc that require the push of a button or the lift of a panel. There isn’t much sizzle to these devices, but they do unlock loads of knowledge.
My biggest criticism is the theoretical nature of the exhibit. Of course, there is a disparity between the long term orientation of the Fed and the short term reaction of the markets. But the exhibit passes over modern issues like Quantitative Easing, federal debt, the global economy, technology and even the Great Depression. In short, Economy in Action feels like it is in a bubble.
As trivia, the entire Economy in Action experience is pretty unbeatable, from the big picture perspective, to the little tidbits presented in the exhibit, to the elaborate security system just to get in. It is almost impossible not to take America’s role as an economic superpower for granted, but the Economy in Action exhibit is a humbling reminder that America had to find its way economically, just it did (and does) with more top-of-mind issues.
Chances are pretty good that eventually we will all find ourselves at the Winspear, the Perot, and the new park. But seeing the Economy in Action exhibit will take some planning as it is only open from 9-3 Tuesday through Friday (it will not be affected by The Sequester) – admission is free. Put it on your to do list, and be ready to roll up your sleeves, push some buttons and to come away from the experience more knowledgeable than when you went in.