Sunday, January 08, 2012

Crystal Bridges Museum: A World-Class Museum in the Ozarks?

Crystal Bridges Museum
Computer Rendering
John Horner/Walton Family Foundation

I read about this museum some time ago last year but was waiting till I heard more. The news interested me because I'd grown up in the Arkansas Ozarks hearing about Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, and I even met one of his elementary school teachers back around 1982. She was in her nineties and blind, but sharp of mind, and had only good things to say about her former student. The man started out poor but managed to become one of the richest men in America through his business acumen and hard work.

As might only happen in stories but is actually taking place, some of Walton's money is being used to fund the construction of a world-class museum designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie for the northwest Ozark town of Bentonville:
The era of the world-class museum built by a single philanthropist in the tradition of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Pierpont Morgan Jr. and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney may seem to have passed, but Alice L. Walton is bringing it back.

Yet her mission is unlike those of her predecessors, or of more recent art patrons like Ronald S. Lauder and his Neue Galerie. They set out to put great works on display in cultural capitals like New York and Boston. Instead, Ms. Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art -- the first major institution in 50 years dedicated to the vast spectrum of American art, to be housed in a building more than twice the size of the current Whitney Museum of American Art -- seeks to bring high art to middle America here in this town of 35,000 that is best known as the home of Wal-Mart.

Ms. Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart's founder, Sam Walton, has worked on the museum for nearly a decade, but has said little about it in public until now. In a recent interview at Town Branch, her family home here, she said she wanted to turn Bentonville into an international destination for art lovers when the museum opens on Nov. 11. At the moment the most significant nearby cultural attractions are two hours away: a museum of Western and American Indian art in Tulsa, Okla., and, in the other direction, the country-music magnet of Branson, Mo.

This article by Carol Vogel, "A Billionaire's Eye for Art Shapes Her Singular Museum," which came to my attention as one of the first reports that I'd noticed, was published in the June 16th edition of the New York Times last year and provided the computer rendition seen above. I assume that the construction was still unfinised at that time, but it was scheduled for opening on November 11th, an auspicious date, I suppose, being 11/11/11, whatever that might signify. I hadn't heard of this museum earlier, perhaps because Ms. Walton had been keeping a low profile as she built up her collection:
Named for the nearby Crystal Spring, the museum will display top-flight works by American masters from the Colonial era to the present, with the largest concentrations coming from the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the collection -- currently about 600 paintings and sculptures -- is still small by the standards of big museums, it is growing at a steady clip.

"She has not just been concentrating on what could be perceived as the greatest hits in American art," said John Wilmerding, an art historian and professor at Princeton University, who has been advising Ms. Walton for seven years and is now on the Crystal Bridges board. "She has collected the work of some of these artists in depth," quietly amassing substantial bodies of work by figures like Martin Johnson Heade, Stuart Davis, George Bellows and John Singer Sargent.

This sounds impressive, and I learned from the article that Ms. Walton "has been an art collector most of her life," even though she "took only one art history course in college," and "has spent much of the last 25 years reading about the subject," making her "a savvy collector." In short, she knows exactly what she's doing, and she getting the best people involved in her project. Despite her focus and past decade's work on this plan, much remains to be done, as she herself acknowledges:
"We'll be opening without a lot of things," she added with a smile. "But that's just fine."
The museum has since opened, and you can tour it online at the Crystal Bridges Museum website, visible proof that my home region is changing . . . and for the better.

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At 6:43 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

I had a look: an intriguing collection!

At 7:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, it is.

Jeffery Hodges

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