“Why not Arkansas? A museum of American art should be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.”
Andy Warhol, Dolly Parton, 1985. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 42 x 42 in. Photo credit: Robert LaPrelle. Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The Crystal Bridges Museum, which opened in November of last year with the financial assistance of Walmart heiress Alice Walton, is an atypical museum of American art. Nestled in Bentonville, a town in the Northwest corner of Arkansas, Crystal Bridges provides a unique experience and free admission for its ever-increasing number of visitors. While many of the best known art museums in America exist near large metropolitan areas, Crystal Bridges embraces its pastoral setting through architecture specifically designed to enhance the act of viewing art. Set very close to America’s geographical center, Crystal Bridges juxtaposes a survey of American depictions against the natural backdrop that has inspired artists since 1776.
The collection, steadily expanding since the museum’s opening, includes works from the colonial era to the contemporary. Crystal Bridges’ curatorial strategy links thematically to landscape, demonstrating historical changes and the evolution of the popular genre. For example, colonial portrayals of the American wilderness speak to the promise of untouched lands, and 19th century panoramas of majestic deserts and mountains demonstrate the allure of the West. In the 20th century galleries, shifts toward abstraction guide the viewer through America’s industrialization, as well as its eventual status as the center of the art world with the advent of Abstract Expressionism. Contemporary works, which coexist with the surrounding landscape, often installed outdoors, continue to write the American canon in Arkansas’ newest cultural asset.
Crystal Bridges possesses overwhelming potential. It is a rarity to see such a large institution funded from a single source, as many museums typically draw from a multitude of financial outlets and intellectual strategies. Only time will tell how Alice Walton’s museum bridges art of the past, present and future. NY Arts caught up with Don Bacigalupi, Ph.D., Executive Director of Crystal Bridges, to discuss the museum’s collection, administrative strategy, and future prospects.
NY Arts: Crystal Bridges Museum stands as one of the foremost institutions of American Art. One might ask, “Why Arkansas?”
Don Bacigalupi: Why not Arkansas? A museum of American art should be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. What better place than in the center of America? In the short time since our opening on 11-11-11, we have welcomed nearly 90,000 guests from the region, the state and around the country. The diversity of our guests is reflective of the diversity of our country. When people come here, visit the grounds, walk the beautiful trails, experience the architecture and artwork, they get it. They understand why Crystal Bridges belongs right where it is.
NYA: The scope of the museum is quite large, encompassing historical genre paintings to contemporary art. I see some familiar names like Jenny Holzer and Nick Cave among your artists. How involved is the museum in contemporary art? Can you give our readers, and those who may not be able to visit, a sense of the collection?
DB: 21st century and contemporary art are key components of the permanent collection and will continue to be in the years ahead. From a curatorial and interpretative standpoint, the richness provided by the opportunity to work with living artists helps us better understand and document the unfolding history of America as it is happening. Our 20th century gallery features some examples of Pop art as well as more experimental works or those inspired by the earlier colonial and 19th century periods. Our first temporary exhibition, “Wonder World,” provided a fun way to introduce and share contemporary art with our guests. The art was organized around the themes of perception, representation, illusion, nature, and history. Evan Penny, Karen LaMonte, Devorah Sperber, and Roxy Paine are just a few of the contemporary artists represented.
NYA: Are there any opportunities for site-specific, interventionist, or ephemeral works to be housed on site?
DB: Presently, we have four site-specific works: Roxy Paine’s Yield (2011), Robert Tannen’s Grains of Sand (2011), James Turrell’s Skyspace, The Way of Color (2009), and Pat Musick and Jerry Carr’s A Place Where They Cried (2010). Musick and Carr’s work references the Trail of Tears, in which the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole peoples were forced to migrate through Arkansas from 1831 to 1838.
NYA: Offering free admission is a bold invitation to larger community participation. How has this affected the Arkansas art community?
DB: There is little question that having the admission fee corporately sponsored has encouraged greater community participation and repeat visits. Sometimes the awareness evokes a bit of surprise for guests who are accustomed to paying for museum entry. Many have shown their appreciation by leaving cash contributions in the lobby’s donation box. Interestingly, sponsored admission has not been a deterrent to membership, which continues to grow and today is at 5,684 member households. The Arkansas art community has been among our staunchest advocates: they have come out in droves and are eager to partner with us to help promote Arkansas’ cultural amenities. We believe that Crystal Bridges has helped focus the public’s attention on the state’s cultural scene.
NYA: Museums of American art have become a popular trend in the past 10 years. What makes Crystal Bridges different?
DB: From its conception, Crystal Bridges aimed to promote an active and relevant educational program and to be accessible to the public. Beyond sponsored admission, we offer numerous programs that target youth and families, adults, art lovers, or those who are simply curious at little to no charge. We’ve structured our education programming to be welcoming to everybody regardless of prior art knowledge. We don’t tell people how they should relate to the art, the architecture, or nature. We simply want to provide the tools of interpretation, rendering the experience personal.
NYA: And what can we look forward to in the future?
DB: We’ll see collaborations with other institutions like “American Encounters: Thomas Cole and the Narrative Landscape,” which is our first exhibition resulting from newly formed partnerships with the Louvre, the High Museum, and the Terra Foundation. We’ll continue to acquire works that tell the story of America. As an organic entity, we’ll season and grow, much like the nature that envelops us, and begin to see our effect on the public as we become integrated with public life.