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After Five Years, What’s Next for Crystal Bridges Museum?

Aug 2, 2017


Founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, currently the wealthiest woman in the United States, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened its doors in 2011, but despite a commendable five-year record of accomplishment, it remains a perplexing outlier among the country’s well-endowed art museums—and not just because, like Walton, it grew up in Northwest Arkansas. During its run so far, leadership has pivoted around a minefield at the heart of the museum’s raison d’etre: showcasing “the American spirit” on the one hand, while acknowledging the incredible diversity of “America” on the other.

But confronting the underlying dynamics of privilege embedded in its mission has not appeared to be a priority during the museum’s first years of operation. Although they still endorse the museum’s founding ambition, curators and staff are now testing new initiatives that tacitly acknowledge its impediments and limits. These efforts line up with a range of other ironies and paradoxes within Crystal Bridges’ unique institutional profile. Luxuriously appointed yet enthusiastically populist, the museum operates with a $1.2 billion endowment from the Walton Family Foundation. Another $20 million from the foundation supports free admission to the permanent collection. Famous initially for its 18th- and 19th-century paintings, the collection now makes headlines for modern and contemporary acquisitions, most recently a $36-million Jasper Johns flag painting, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, acquired for $44.4 million, and Felix Gonzales-Torres’s Untitled (LA) for $7.7 million, a record for the late artist. Despite being located more than 200 miles from the nearest big city in the state, the museum has welcomed 2.7 million viewers since 2011. Thousands of them were first-time visitors to an art museum. “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell,” predictably the most popular show in the museum’s early history, was eclipsed in attendance in 2015 by the 175,000 viewers who came to see Crystal Bridges’ first major contemporary-art exhibition, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.”

The audience statistics are a tribute not only to the museum’s outreach strategies, but also to crowd management. Attentive volunteers in casual attire personally greet visitors at the main entrance, offering directions, recommendations, and audio guides. Walton herself participates on occasion. Theater, too, plays into the threshold experience: to enter the building, visitors must walk between the legs of Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot spider sculpture. Just behind the greeters, suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s spectacular vaulted restaurant, is Jeff Koons’s glittery 10-foot-wide, circa-$23-million pendant Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), 1994–2006. Restaurant chatter suggests that, for most of the crowd, it’s an awesomely beautiful equivalent of a warm hug, and for those familiar with Koons’s wink-wink aesthetic, the setting itself registers as especially apropos.