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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

From Big Box to Big Art

The Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Photo courtesy of the site.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will open in Bentonville, Arkansas on November 11, 2011.  (11/11/11 - get it?)  The 201,000 square foot museum will be twice the size of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Crystal Bridges at night, courtesy of the site.

The brainchild of Alice Louise Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, Ms. Walton has been working on this for a decade, although plans were announced in 2005. Bentonville, a town with a population of 35,000, is the home of the original Wal-Mart and the location of corporate headquarters.  Ms. Walton is #21 on Forbes' list of the world's billionaires with an estimated $18 billion net worth.

Photo of Alice Walton courtesy of Sipa Press.

The museum, designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie, is built on 120 acres of family land surrounding two ponds and named for nearby Crystal Springs.  The museum is a series of pavilions that will house galleries, classrooms, meeting rooms, and a large auditorium able to accommodate 300 people.  This glass-enclosed space is intended for community receptions, business conferences, and private functions from dinners to weddings.  The museum is connected to downtown Bentonville through sculpture and walking trails.  There will be a store and dining facilities in the complex.

Maxfield Parrish's 1908 The Lantern Bearers.
Photo by Martin Polak, courtesy of Crystal Bridges.

The endeavor is expected to create 120 full-time jobs plus inject lots of tourist money into the local economy.  250,000 visitors are estimated for the first years. The idea from its inception was discussed at the three family meetings held annually, as Ms. Walton sought support from her nieces and nephews who will inherit the land someday.  The Walton Family Foundation pledged $800 million for an operating endowment, acquisitions and future improvements, which may be the largest endowment given to a museum of American art.

Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing It Under, produced as a lithograph in 1934,
which sold out immediately.  Image courtesy of the site.

Although Ms. Walton only has one college art history course under her belt, she has studied on her own and is considered a knowledgeable collector.  She has acknowledged that she has come up against difficulties and attitude from the East Coast art establishment, but is hoping the finished museum will end that.  Her intentions for the museum are that it will be interactive with museums internationally, and fully intends that it will be a world-class museum in its own right.

Norman Rockwell's 1943 depiction of Rosie the Riveter.
Photo by Dwight Primiano, courtesy of Crystal Bridges.

To that end, even though she has been collecting art for most of her life, she began buying specificially for the museum in 2005.  She has become a shrewd and savvy force in the art market, often buying from auctions and galleries anonymously. Some of the works she's acquired for the museum include Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington (the "Constable-Hamilton" one) from 1797 for $8.1 million, Norman Rockwell's 1943 Rosie the Riveter for 4.9 million, and Andy Warhol's 1985 silkscreen of Dolly Parton.

The Constable-Hamilton portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
in 1797.  It was commissioned by William Constable for Alexander Hamilton
and remained in the Hamilton family until 1896 when it was bequeathed to the
Lenox Library, which later merged with the Astor library and Tilden Trust to
become the NY Public Library.  Photo courtesy of Kathryn Shattuck/NYTimes.

She also bought the most extensive surviving group of Colonial portraiture, the Levy-Franks paintings, which are notable examples of Colonial American portraiture.  Covering three generations, these portraits depict Moses Raphael Levy, his wife Grace Mears Levy, their daughter Abigail Franks and her husband Jacob Franks and five of their children.  Portraits signified social status in Colonial times, and these are important evidence confirming Jewish-American identity.  The American Jewish Historical Society has a collection of thirty-five of Abigail's letters, which together with the portraits, gives a glimpse of not only their personal lives but of 18th century New York.

Gerardus Duyckinc's 1735 portrait of Richa Franks.
Photo by Dwight Primiano, courtesy Crystal Bridges.

Some of the controversy with the museum, and the aforementioned troubles with the East Coast art establishment, is that many feel that the art that Walton has purchased should remain in their respective "birthplaces".  This is an old argument, and an international one.  (Can you say "Elgin Marbles"?)  In 2005, Walton paid $35 million to Sotheby's in a sealed bid for Asher B. Durand's 1849 landscape "Kindred Spirits", which was owned by the New York Public Library, and which is considered the definitive masterpiece of the Hudson River School.  Many thought that the piece should remain in New York.

Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand, 1849.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 2006, Walter partnered with the National Gallery of Art to buy Thomas Eakin's 1875 work "The Gross Clinic" for $68 million from Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University.  Fresh from the hoopla over the Durand piece, she let locals try and match her bid, which they did.  She then bought a less important Eakins work, the portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand from 1874, which is the first in a series Eakins did on professors and scientists.  She paid $30 million for that work.

The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, 1875.  Dr. Samuel D. Gross
is in the surgical amphitheater at Jefferson Medical College.
Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand by Thomas Eakins, 1874.
Dr. Rand taught Eakins anatomy at Jefferson Medical College.
Both Eakins images courtesy of Wikipedia.

She is also commissioning new work, but the collection so far has concentrated mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries.  She has gathered about 600 works, so has plenty of room to grow.  Two of her commissioned pieces are a giant silver tree that stands at the entrance by Roxy Paine, and a large-scale light installation by James Turrell.

Marisol Escobar was part of Warhol's circle in the 1960s.
This sculpture of Martha Graham is made of wood.

Probably the biggest problem with the museum is its location.  Although it is an interesting concept to have a major museum in the heartland, it also limits who will visit.  If you go to a big city - New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles - to see an art museum there will plenty of other things to see and do.  Bentonville?  Well, it would have to be a destination-specific trip, which those on limited incomes can't afford.  The wealthy, however, can fly anywhere in the world to see art, and often do.  Which begs the question, just who is this museum for?

Life-size glass sculpture by Karen LaMonte, 2007.
Photo by Martin Polak, courtesy of Crystal Bridges.

I guess I could get a job as a greeter at the museum.  I think I'm old enough.

To see more about the collection, go the museum website.

1 comment:

  1. art museums are great, we need them. it would be nice however if she used some of those billions to pay Walmart employees a living wage.