The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened last month in the middle of America, which also happens to be in the middle of nowhere. To discover just how isolated Bentonville, Arkansas, is, you should play with a map and see how large a circle around the town you must draw before major population centers come in reach. A three-hour drive would take you as far as Tulsa; to reach Little Rock, Kansas City, or Wichita would take another hour. And yet Bentonville, with its 35,000 inhabitants, has a significance all its own: It is the home of Walmart, the country’s largest chain of retail stores, where Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962. And it is here where his daughter, Alice Walton, has placed her elegant and exorbitantly ambitious museum.
Alice was born in 1949; after studying economics at Trinity University in San Antonio, she spent most of her career in business and kept a low public profile. After her father’s death in 1992, she came into her fortune of some 20 billion dollars, making her (according to Forbes) the 10th wealthiest person in America.
Only in the past decade did her leisurely art collecting become systematic and purposeful. Indeed, this helps define Walton from fellow museum-builders of the past, such as J. Paul Getty, Paul Mellon, and Albert Barnes. They collected first and built much later, opening their treasures to the public as a gesture of democratic noblesse oblige. Walton has conceived both collecting and building from the outset as a single coordinated operation. She set about first to conceive a grand museum, making a calculated gamble that by the time it opened, she would be able to fill it with a comprehensive history of American art. Whatever one says about the way she has done this, or the ethics of moving art from an urban to a rural setting—and there is much to say—one must concede that this is the most remarkable act of cultural philanthropy in at least a generation.
One might not think that an Israeli-born Canadian would be the logical choice for designing a museum of American art, but Walton’s selection of Moshe Safdie proved to be inspired. Safdie, of course, is the prodigy who in 1968 became an architectural celebrity at the age of 29 with Habitat, the radical apartment complex in Montreal composed of interlocking geometric units. Since then he has specialized in institutional and cultural buildings, such as the public libraries in Vancouver and Salt Lake City, and museums in Montreal and Jerusalem (the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research). In recent years he has found commercial patronage, as in Singapore’s Marina Sands resort, a casino and hotel complex of stupefying opulence in which three skyscrapers are joined at their summits by a platform that resembles the deck of a luxury ocean liner.
At a time when American architectural practice was becoming dominated by celebrity designers, who mocked the self-importance of modernism even as they tiptoed away from its sense of social responsibility, Safdie has held fast to an older model that offered designs intended to improve the modern city and modern life. And unlike those peers who apply their signature style on everything they do, he has never developed an idiosyncratic personal style. If his works show a family resemblance, it is that they often have bold and memorable shapes, in which the building program is given its lively expression. In selecting him, Walton found an architect whose work would not express his personality but her own.
Walton’s museum reflects a durable American pattern of creating institutions that make no visual reference to the vulgar sources of wealth that made them. Just as fortunes created by rail, oil, and pharmaceuticals were reincarnated as Italian palazzi, French chateaux, and Greco-Roman villas, Crystal Bridges bears no relation to a Walmart store. Indeed, it is barely a building at all, but rather a village of low pavilions meant to seem like natural extensions of the surrounding landscape. Walton and Safdie chose for their site a small vale headed by a mineral spring. This spring was then channeled and diverted (with help from the town water supply) to become a stream that forms the central feature of the museum.
In plan, the museum looks like the letter P turned backward. The main buildings run along the east bank of the stream, while two enclosed bridges reach across to each end of a gallery on the far side. A third bridge at the lower end of the complex does not quite cross, but thrusts into the water to offer dramatic views of the whole complex.
If the water provides the visual focus, it is the surrounding hills that give the buildings their form. These repeat the curves of the hills they back up against, so the entrance block, administrative offices, and galleries each take the form of an arc, presenting either concave or convex walls to the water. The walls are of concrete and, to relieve their austerity, Safdie banded them with thin horizontal strips of Arkansas pine—a feature that is poetic and not literally structural, representing the regularly spaced holes that poured concrete requires.
The bridges also make poetry out of the facts of their construction. They are without question the most spectacular elements of the entire complex. The bridges are supported by two slender cables that curve not only downward but outward, swelling out to carry the thrust of the copper-sheathed roofs that rest upon them like immense oval shields. These contain the museum’s most attractive spaces, which freely mix natural and industrial materials: Above are the great curves of the laminated pine beams, shimmering in a buttery yellow, and the glazed walls below flaunt an extraordinarily lavish array of joints, connectors, and clamps. The central bridge, with its striking views to either side, has been reserved as the restaurant (“ah,” an architect friend said upon seeing the space, “the let’s-get-married room”).
As successful as these spaces are, the curved galleries are less so. The curves were clearly intended to offer a gentler museum experience than the interminable enfilades of palace-derived museums such as the Louvre. Yet even the longest enfilade shows its end, while a curved gallery does not. This gives the Crystal Bridges rooms their own peculiar oppressiveness, because you have no idea how far you must continue to walk. It is especially odd that a museum so passionate about nature, natural materials, and water would be so stingy with sunlight, that richest of all natural elements. Instead the galleries are capped with the same extravagant pine beams as in the bridges, set at a dramatic raking angle. The effect is striking, but given how much of the collection comprises 19th-century paintings, painted under and for natural light, it is a small compensation.
In short, the Crystal Bridges Museum is a handsome and frequently charming work of architecture, but by no means is it flawless. The collaboration between Walton and Safdie was evidently quite congenial, but a congenial relationship is no guarantee of a great building. On the contrary, it is the ornery and demanding client, who does not hesitate to send the architect back to the drawing board, who gets the finest work. This does not seem to have happened here.
Any building larger than a henhouse begins life as a loose diagram in which its various parts are roughly blocked out. In the course of the design process, this loose order is tightened, relationships are made more logical, and spaces and pathways are consolidated. At Crystal Bridges, this process was not taken as far as it might have been. It rambles discursively, gathers itself up into little tents of space, and then slackens again. Only along its central spine of water, where its three transparent bridge-forms can be seen shimmering through each other, does the museum achieve any formal unity.
The collection itself is another matter. Walton determined early in her campaign to gather the whole range of American art from the 17th century to the present. That is an unusually ambitious goal for any collector, and most out of necessity concentrate on a few discrete periods or a group of artists. Indeed, I would not have thought it possible at this late date to assemble a comprehensive collection of American art—and of generally high quality—in fewer than 10 years. The great collections of American art, such as those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, are the outgrowth of a century or two of patient and thoughtful accumulation, helped by the chance bequest. But Walton has done it briskly and—doubtless aided by the economic downturn of the past three years—with great dispatch.
As is normally the case in such buying sprees, Walton did not fill her museum alone. Just as Isabella Stewart Gardner was advised by Bernard Berenson, Walton was assisted by John Wilmerding, the Princeton University professor who is the author of a important textbook on American art. Indeed, Crystal Bridges is, in effect, a textbook mounted on a wall that moves chronologically from the colonial origins of American art to its latest representative works. This unashamed comprehensiveness is the most remarkable aspect of the collection, and the source of its principal weakness. For not every period is equally well represented in the art market, some barely at all, and by committing to having the entire chain, Walton also committed to having weak links.
The treatment of the Aesthetic Movement is particularly uneven, most of its masterpieces having long since been spoken for. There are some fine works by John Singer Sargent, but there is also an unusually undistinguished watercolor of his and a rather meager James McNeill Whistler. So it is too with Abstract Expressionism: There is an early and undistinguished Jackson Pollock (one of his tormented figure drawings) and as of yet nothing by Willem de Kooning, perhaps the museum’s greatest desideratum.
But in the one area where Walton might have expected the most difficulty, early colonial art, she was enormously fortunate. This period is a great stumbling block for collectors; little survives and what does is usually over-restored and repainted into a faint simulacrum of the original. Walton’s coup was to purchase from the American Jewish Historical Society six portraits dated ca. 1720–1735, depicting the Levy/Franks families, two interlocking German-Jewish families in and around New York. All were by the same artist, almost certainly Gerardus Duyckinck, the principal painter of fashionable New York society, and are uncommonly well preserved. This gives Crystal Bridges one of the few troves anywhere of related family portraits from before 1750.
In general, the Crystal Bridges collection is distinguished less by individual stunners than by its generally high average. One painter after another is represented by one or more works showing him at the top of his game: John Singleton Copley, Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins (represented by two exquisite portraits), Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Alfred Pinkham Ryder, Arthur Dove, Hans Hoffmann, and others. If they stand alongside lesser works (those by Charles Sheeler, say, or Gilbert Stuart, do not show their authors at their best), one can anticipate that they will give way to better ones in the years ahead.1
For all her effort at assembling a representative collection, Walton has stamped it with her own personality. Her taste clearly tends to images of the American landscape, which are the greatest strength of the collection, and not only of the sentimental or realistic sort: She is an enthusiast of Marsden Hartley, for example, that erratic and anguished modernist whose images of the Maine countryside are deeply unsettling. But now that the museum has its own staff of curators, its buying has moved more decisively into contemporary art, although even here the collection is traditional in its preference for objects over conceptual art (let alone performance art).
The earliest notices of the Crystal Bridges have been positive, including a generally favorable review this summer in the New Yorker. This was somewhat surprising, given the public fury over some of Walton’s controversial purchase attempts. She did not succeed in acquiring Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic, a depiction of a harrowing operation in an amphitheater that is widely considered America’s greatest painting of the 19th century. When it was revealed in 2006 that the Jefferson Medical College had agreed to sell her its painting for $68 million, Philadelphia pressured the college to sell it instead to a consortium of local museums, provided they could match the price (they did).
For many, the episode was the first they had heard of Crystal Bridges and it seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with it. There was the prying away of paintings from cultural institutions such as libraries or colleges, whose shortsighted trustees could be depended on to take up offers to “monetize their nonperforming assets,” as the euphemism goes. There was the removal of art from places where it had rich and specifically local meaning to places where it had none (the Gross Clinic is the quintessential expression of Philadelphia realism, which Eakins taught to a generation of local painters). Indeed, just as she was starting out, Walton made her most significant and controversial purchase: Kindred Spirits (1849), Asher B. Durand’s celebrated painting of those two champions of the American landscape, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, the painter and the poet. Bryant—the famed abolitionist, editor of the New York Post, and principal instigator of the creation of Central Park—was one of the early great men of New York City; and there were furious recriminations that the painting should have left the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library (which literally sits in a park named after Bryant) for rural Arkansas.
Walton’s acquisition strategy seemed to exemplify what is usually cited as the worst trait of Walmart itself: its tendency to put local stores out of business. Worse still, it meant moving art from places where it was easily accessible to places where it was not. At least the Elgin Marbles, pried off the Parthenon two centuries ago and shipped to London, were taken to a place where they could more easily be seen. In this respect, Walton resembled nothing so much as a magpie, the bird known for making off with glittering objects left unguarded and secreting them in hidden sanctuaries.
But for all the dismay that met the Gross Clinic fiasco, and the successful sales to Walton of Kindred Spirits and War News from Mexico (the image of the Mexican-American War that the National Academy of Design sold), it is fascinating how quickly the museum world has come to embrace Crystal Bridges. This is due to the characteristic deference that all museums show to the hyper-wealthy, but also to Walton’s generous decision to lend her work freely to other museums, maximizing the potential audience. And her openhandedness is breathtaking: Just before the opening, she gave the museum additional funds to ensure that admission would be free.
In the end, it is the location in rural Arkansas that remains the most intriguing aspect of Crystal Bridges. It seems to violate the natural order of things, which is that art and culture—and the artifacts of art and culture—must concentrate in the city. Anything moving in the opposite direction seems to suggest a dispersal, a diminution of force. And in the crude utilitarian
calculus, this may well be true. Crystal Bridges hopes for 250,000 visitors annually, a figure that it may reach during its first year or two, but is likely to taper off. How many pilgrimages will be made to Bentonville? (By contrast, the Metropolitan in New York has 5.2 million annual visitors, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art 900,000, and the High Museum in Atlanta half a million.) But if the only way to measure the utility of a work is to measure the number of passing eyeballs per minute, then it would follow that one should dismantle Stonehenge and reassemble it in the British Museum.
In fact, the actual remoteness of Crystal Bridges, and the presentation of its collection in relative isolation, confers benefits of a different sort. The truth is that there are other indices besides the box office for judging the influence of art, which aspires to be more than an arm of tourism. And the value of a collection is something rather different from the combined purchase prices of its inventory. An intelligently assembled collection adds value, as works of art gain in significance by being seen in the company of other great works, and they gain value by being known, remembered, and studied. It may well turn out that the public profile of Kindred Spirits will rise by its having been plucked out of its New York context, where it was rather lost in the shuffle. It is already more famous than it was and will grow yet more famous.
To conceive a great museum and a great collection at one stroke, and to carry it through to success, shows a rare dash and élan. One may quibble away that the building could be stronger, the collection less spotty, and the airfare less outrageous, but in the end one must bow down and acknowledge the boldness of the vision and the thumping drive of its execution. No American collector—no Morgan, no Barnes, no Gardner, no Getty—did so much so swiftly and (to judge by its promising debut) so successfully. It is thrilling to see such vaulting cultural ambition at a moment in history that seems defined not by the confident effort to make something great, but by the self-conscious and self-abnegating cultural affect that says nothing is great and nothing ever was.
1 A few less serious works are certain to be great crowd-pleasers, particularly Rosie the Riveter, Norman Rockwell’s image of a tousled and plucky redhead eating lunch on a girder before the American flag, her work shoes resting on a tattered copy of Mein Kampf (it is actually a witty paraphrase of Michelangelo’s prophet Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel).