Judith H. Dobrzynski
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture

Judith H. Dobrzynski's Real Clear Arts

Crystal Bridges: A Few More Reflections

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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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  1. You’ve missed the whole point of the criticism of Alice Walton. In this day and age – particularly this last year, which saw the rise of the Occupy movements – ultrawealthy people whose fortune depends on exploiting their workforce are hardly likely to win the hearts of the public. Her money is tainted which, unfortunately, taints the museum. Let’s hope that a skilled staff can undo some of that and make the museum stand on its own merits.
    And so far as naming goes, if Alice Walton wanted to bring world-class art to Bentonville, why not call it the Bentonville Museum of Art?

  2. by realcleararts

    I haven’t missed the point at all. We just happen to disagree. As for the name, why is the Bentonville Museum of Art better than Crystal Bridges? The museum has bridges and they go over Crystal Spring. As it happens, the population of that corner of Arkansas is spread over several small towns that are not very far apart. As defined by the Census Bureau, the Metropolitan Statistical Area for NW Arkansas includes Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale as well as Bentonville, and the museum serves the population of all those towns and the four counties in which they are located. The SMA is one of the fastest growing in the U.S.

  3. by Richard Yoast

    Perhaps if you replaced your love of the final product – the museum – and viewed it it from the perspective of how that museum was possible only through the involuntary contributions of underpaid and underinsured Walmart employees (who probably can’t afford to enter most of the fee charging museums in the areas in which they live – and certainly when they’re ill and can’t afford health care), then you’d see what wealthy donations like this museum really represent. It’s not surprising that many citizens view such institutions as elitist.

    Of course, wealthy patrons count on the fact that in 100 years society will remember the name and museum and not how the wealth was accumulated. Look at the Frick Museum. But this has begun to change. As poorer nations have acquired enough clout to object – and demand return of – the involuntary donations they made to the wealthy aristocrats of other nations who stole their patrimony to fill their private and public museums – suddenly the origins of the wealth of these museums has come into question – if belatedly.

    Instead of fretting about the criticisms of Alice Walton, ask yourself if rather than getting a decent income from your work you’d personally prefer to involuntarily get less pay, less insurance and give it to a multimillionare to do with as they please – or not. Do you also agree then that it’s a good deal when such multimillionares fund political movements that attack public funding for the arts?

    P.S. An interesting bit of research would be to see what the museum and other social contribution levels have been in the communities in which the Waltons’ businesses have become dominant after numerous other local businesses are destroyed.

  4. by realcleararts

    Thanks for your comment. The pros and cons of Wal-Mart, and its contributions to the U.S. economy, have been debated and written about ad infinitum, and are in my opinion unsettled as to whether the pros outweigh the cons or vice versa. They are beyond the scope of my blog. But answer me this: how does castigating Alice Walton for building Crystal Bridges improve the situation for Wal-Mart workers?

    BTW, I work in an industry — journalism — in which almost all of us are involuntarily getting less pay and, in fact, working for free, as in this blog. I am not comparing my economic situation to that of a Wal-Mart worker in any way, just pointing out that involuntary changes such as you mention are not that uncommon. Take a look at SaveOurTimes.com.

  5. I’ve been to Crystal Bridges. This comprehensive collection of American Art is bigger than the politics of our day and the Walton/Wal Mart place in the culture war. I’m no fan of Wal-Mart, but there are some things that are bigger than the world’s largest company — History and Art are two of those things on the list. I hope you can see that people who criticize this museum and by extension it’s comprehensive collection of American Art are simply too small minded to be able to see the forest from the trees. Being so self-righteous must be exhausting — maybe you should take a break from it (and give the rest of us one) and go to a museum.

  6. by realcleararts

    Dear Drew: Thanks for your comment, but I just back from several museums. Blogs are supposed to be opinionated! Maybe you can stop being a little too judgmental (and nasty) — or you can always stop reading.

  7. by Lesley Hamilton

    most of the art is ok, some quite good, but the building is a monstrosity. The architecture is awful. Give me The Art Institute of Chicago any day.

    The food is too expensive, too.

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