Judith H. Dobrzynski
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture

Judith H. Dobrzynski's Real Clear Arts

Crystal Bridges: Bad Building, Good, Not Great Collection

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Tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal carries my review of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Alice Walton’s excellent adventure in building a world-class collection in less than a decade. It’s online now.

Unlike many others in the art world, I have always believed that Walton was doing a good thing, bringing art to an area that sorely lacked the real thing. I have never understood the logic of those who complained about her efforts, as if non-city-dwellers should be content to travel to see art, and then, at the same time, argued for bigger government budgets for art, namely at the National Endowment for the Arts. Don’t they see the connection between knowledge of real art and support for more? I have no problem with the fact that she bought Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library.

But that doesn’t mean I gave Crystal Bridges a positive review. It’s good, but not great — at least not yet. For a start, the building has major flaws. I mention a few (the review is less than 1100 words), starting with an awkward entrance. Visitors are met by a graceful semicircular curve inscribed with the museum’s name, only to find that they must walk past this faux entrance, around the corner to an elevator that descends to the lobby. Yes, the museum is lodged in a ravine, but surely a more elegant entryway could have been found. How about escalators, which can be beautiful?

Once you’re inside the galleries, the flow is mostly good — except you can’t get out without retracing your steps or rushing to the finish. Thoughtfully, the building does provide rest areas, filled with art books and seats, and opportunities to go outside. But those grace notes lengthen the time of a visitor’s stay — nothing wrong with that, except for those with limited time.

The “mostly” qualifier above was necessary because of the so-called 20th Century area, which has, as I wrote, side galleries that function as “tributaries off the main rivers of art history.” These are easily missed. The gallery suites for earlier art also have side galleries, but either their location, the lighting, or the hangings somehow lead visitors to them.

On to the collection: Walton has delivered, as I wrote, “great moments” in some galleries (a beautiful Arthur Dove, above, is a promised gift from Walton), and strange ones in others. Despite all the commentary that she was driving art prices through the roof, she didn’t pay out in several areas when the opportunities arose. Here’s one paragraph:

Critics will go through Crystal Bridges looking for gaps, and there are many: J.A.M. Whistler and Edward Hopper are among those represented by token works, for example. There’s no late Winslow Homer, no Willem de Kooning, no combine by Rauschenberg. Ms. Walton passed on recent opportunities to purchase excellent Rothkos, Warhols and Clyfford Stills, to name just three.

But, as I add, Crystal Bridges is still in the making. It will grow and change. Meantime, it’s a darn good start.

More on what else CB does right another time, soon.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum

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  1. There’s nothing wrong with bringing art to Bentonville, it’s Alice Walton herself, and the Walmart taint she is heir to, that’s the problem. Yes, plutocrats of the worst order have been art patrons for centuries, and often had a hand in founding some of the best museums, but we can’t change that. They are dead and gone, while Walmarts mistreatment of its workers happens now. We have a double standard, yes, but we choose to stand against the wrongs being done today and let those of the past slip by.

  2. Wow, I really disagree with your description of Crystal Bridge’s Wayne Thiebaud as “uncharacteristic.” While it’s true that he’s better known for his pastries and street views, he painted quite a few figurative works, and the Crystal Bridges painting is an outstanding example of this lesser-known part of his oeuvre. “Mystifying,” sure, but not uncharacteristic to Thiebaud’s admirers.

  3. by realcleararts

    Yes, he did — but if you were going to show one work, a typical one, by Thiebaud, is this the one? I like the painting, I just think it is “uncharacteristic.” That doesn’t mean bad.

  4. Stephen. So who else was to bring art to NW Arkansas? Heirs to the Woolworth fortune? So are we not supposed to enjoy the museum or the collection until the first Walton heirs are long dead and gone? Should Alice have placed her museum in Kansas City or Tulsa instead so the uncomfortable and glaring glow of the
    tainted money would be somewhat dimmed? I have seen no evidence that Walmart treats its worker and has a hair-width difference in benefits compared to Target, Kmart or dollar store chains. There is a major double-standard in play here. I think, for example, a case could be make that McDonald’s employees are treated equally, if not worse, than Walmart workers. Yet when MickeyD’s widow and matron Joan Kroc gave her big bucks to NPR, no one complained, to my knowledge, that All Things Considered had received dirty money and that Ms. Kroc should have spent those efforts on improving working conditions in the drive-thrus rather than news and commentary on the lower end of the FM dial. Why the difference? Oh, yeah, NPR tends to be a fave of liberals, especially those sipping the white wine. Walmart tends to be viewed as more the red-state, beer-drinking genre, even though those visiting this museum cross a very wide spectrum sociologically. I think perhaps you (and I know for sure others) really DO have a problem as to the museum location and who the assumed beneficiaries are of the largess. NPR listeners deserve Kroc’s money? Museum-goers in the hinterlands do not?

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