Crystal Bridges: A Few More Reflections

When I wrote my review of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for the Wall Street Journal, which was published a few weeks ago, and mentioned here, I did not have the space to cover several noteworthy aspects of the project.

Noteworthy and, for the most part, laudable. Perhaps noting them will help counter the mostly misguided criticism of the museum’s benefactor, Alice Walton.

Let’s start with the name itself. Some people, ridiculously, in my opinion, have crticized the name Walton chose for the museum, saying it sounds more like a housing subdivision than a museum. Would they have preferred the Alice Walton Museum, a la the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum or the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh (among so many others)? Or would they prefer what is happening in Miami? Rather, Walton followed the practice of the Libbeys, in Toledo, among many others, and wisely decided against naming the museum after herself.

Next, the setting: Although I haven’t traversed all of the trails on the land surrounding the museum, I have on my two visits been able to walk some of them. They are lovely on their own, and while some large-scale sculptures sit on the premises (as above, Shore Lunch by Dan Ostermiller), they are sparse — so far — leaving plenty of room for nature. The building itself, which has several awkward features, does sit well in the ravine, relating to the terrain around it. Nice choice.

One little-mentioned feature of the museum is its library, which already includes more than 50,000 items (books, manuscripts and a large collection of color plates), about two-thirds of which are available for the public to use or to browse. The library area (above left) includes open stacks — contrast that with the many museums where books in stacks, if available, must be called for hours in advance. Only the rare books must be requested, and the museum promises to bring some out for display.

And forget the uncomfortable furniture found in many libraries — Crystal Bridges offers comfortable chairs, desks and computers. Books and art periodicals have also been placed between galleries, allowing visitors to rest, to take a breather, in little lounges before taking in the next tranch of art.

The furniture for the public isn’t fancy — but neither is that for the trustees. Crystal Bridges’ boardroom (right) is not a leather-chair and mahogany kind of place; it is, as you can see for yourself, rather plain.

Crystal Bridges has a museum store — and a good one, very handsomely designed by Marlon Blackwell, as the photo at left attests –but it is not placed obnoxiously in front of the exit, so that all visitors must pass through it.

In fact, the store (3,000 sq ft) sits off to the side and some visitors might even miss it. They shouldn’t: even looking is fun. See the display of Native American products at right, below.

The museum also contains an auditorium, or, as it terms it, a “Great Hall” for lectures, concerts, films and other events — the one place I could not enter on either of my visits. It wasn’t finished last spring (there was only a hole in the ground then) and it was being set up for a concert when I visited in early December. The guard could not be persuaded to let me have a brief look.

But the photo below of its exterior shows some of its probable charms.

The hallway linking the main part of the museum to the Great Hall contains another admirable feature: the “community showcase.” Display cases have been inset in the walls, and area museums have been invited to place small displays drawn from their collections on view. This way, visitors to Crystal Bridges are exposed to other cultural institutions in the area, and they benefit from free publicity. Nice idea. The final photo, below, shows one of them currently on view. (Apologies for the poor picture quality. I was snapping during evening hours, which required a flash, and taking the pictures as museum visitors walked along the wall. I had to click fast.)   

And did I mention the iPods? Visitors, upon surrender of a driver’s license or credit card, listen to guides about the collection on iPods, with Walton, museum director Don Bacigalupi and various curators providing commentary or dialogue for about two dozen works of art on view.

The recordings are broken into sections, a couple of minutes each, and visitors choose which and how many they’d like to hear.

I haven’t mentioned the education programs, about which I know little except that they exist, or the cafe and restaurant. I tried the latter, for dinner, and the food was fine.

Personally, I think Crystal Bridges will exceed its prediction of 150,000 to 300,000 visitors in its first year (though all the free timed tickets required for the first two months were not claimed).

That’s it on Crystal Bridges for this year. But I still haven’t emptied my notebooks on this museum, so we’ll see if what 2012 brings requires more comment.

Photo Credits: Copyright Judith H. Dobrzynski

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