January 4, 2012

Art, Nature, and Arkansas: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

It takes an exceptional cultural experience to forego a food-related post. Over the past few weeks I've been so food-minded, planning meals and (especially) desserts, trying to cram in all the holiday-related recipes I can and still having about a hundred that I am saving for next December. January is a time to refocus, get back to the "normal" life (whatever that may be), and try to recover from the typical indulge of the past six weeks.

On January 1, my family made an excursion - a pilgrimage, if you will - to Bentonville, Arkansas, in the northwest part of the state. Bentonville, home of the brand-new, all-American art museum Crystal Bridges, has made international news in the past several months. I've read articles (namely in The New Yorker and New York Times) whose authors are left scratching their heads about why, oh WHY has Alice Walton, professional art collector billionaire daughter of Wal-Mart mogul Sam Walton, decided to invest her resources in backwoods Arkansas rather than on Fifth Avenue, New York? Half of me takes delight in sensing these critics squirm at the mere mention of "Arkansas culture" and half of me wants to rise up and defend the state of my upbringing.

Alice Walton's decision to plant the next great American art museum in northwest Arkansas is more calculated and shrewd than the casual critic might think. Bentonville, home to the world headquarters of Wal-Mart, is surrounded by international business. Shortly before his death in 1992, Sam Walton established that anybody - ANYBODY - wanting to do business with Wal-Mart should have a venue within twenty miles of Bentonville. As a result, the Northwest Arkansas region (Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville) has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the entire country over the past two decades. And this is not just due to the success of Wal-Mart: J.B. Hunt Transportation and Tyson Chicken headquarters also reside in Northwest Arkansas. The faithfulness and generosity of these businesses is indispensable both to the state of Arkansas and to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, which, during my freshman year of college, received from the Waltons the largest monetary gift ever given to a state university. From a business perspective, Northwest Arkansas is not something to sniff at.
Roxy Paine, Yield (stainless steel)
Central entrance from above

Crystal Bridges Restaurant and Cafe
So the Waltons have an emotional, personal stake in the state of Arkansas. Then what? Alice Walton lives in Fort Worth, Texas. She has been collecting art since she was a child. She has major presence and influence at Christie's auctions and excellent rapport with curators all over the world. Why not go all in and put this little gem of a museum where the most people can see? New York? Chicago? San Francisco? Houston? Because Ms. Walton believes in the midsection of the country, because she knows that America is not defined by huge cities and cosmopolitan existences, because she believes that mid-America is just as much American as cities, she chooses to invest her life project into Northwest Arkansas, thereby giving the people of the mid-south and midwest a gift that is usually given to the coasts. Oh and cost of admission to the museum? Free. Art for all.

There is more to this investment than just a business model, or the desire to give Southerners and midwesterners a cultural gift that many have been craving. Ms. Walton also understands the beauty and synergy of culture and nature; she believes that Northwest Arkansas offers a seamless vision of both. Crystal Bridges is not just an art museum: it is a botanical garden, a trailhead, a juxtaposition of art with nature, a belief that art is nature and vice versa. Surrounding the museum are miles of trails that cut through the Arkansas Ozarks. Native plants and trees line the area and little streams and waterfalls wind their way through the nooks and crannies of this ancient region. Natural stone has been cut into footbridges, stairs, and occasional seating areas along the trails. The trees are tall and slender here, and native ferns blanket the sloping hillsides. In Arkansas' temperate climate, you can make out early-blooming witch hazel. In a month or two, dogwood blossoms will begin to appear. And through the tree branches, through the waterfalls, bluffs, and streams, you can see the graceful archways of Crystal Bridges' gallery tops.
Arkansas Cedar with exposed screws

The museum's entrance is unlike anything I have ever seen. The architect, Moshe Safdie, designed Crystal Bridges to have the opposite effect of the classical museum. In a traditional museum, one ascends a flight of stairs to enter the exhibits, indicating the elevated experience of art and the contrast between the artistic world and the banal human existence. All very well and fine. But at Crystal Bridges, the parking areas and entrances are at the top. Museum goers descend into the galleries, which are built as literal bridges over the area of Crystal Springs. This design creates a horizontality between art and art-goer; it reverses the museum experience to very much honor the viewers as well as the art viewed. And everywhere along the way, peeking out from between the beams of natural Arkansas cedar that graces every ceiling and hallway panel, museum goers get glimpses of the rural Arkansas Ozarks that was the inspiration for this very building.

18th century gallery
Crystal Bridges is exactly as Alice Walton wanted it. Art at one with nature, and museum visitor at one with art. It is a refreshing modern example of how art can be viewed and appreciated without traveling massive distances and without the hustle of city experience. The visitor flow throughout the museum is calmer than most museums I've seen (which have been many) and you end your tour with this complete sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and inspiration.
Early 19th century gallery

Crystal Bridges Restaurant and Cafe

Crystal Springs trailhead
We broke up our visit into two halves, breaking at 12:30 for lunch in the gorgeous, light-filled upstairs restaurant and commencing with the rest of the day to finish up the galleries and walk outside. Some of the paintings and drawings were familiar from grade-school history books: buffalo hunts, Native American lacrosse games, photos of Sioux chiefs, iconic portraits of George Washington. Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter is also here, as well as Andy Warhol's 80's-era portrait of Dolly Parton. Jasper Johns' collages, Georgia O'Keefe, and early Jackson Pollack can be found in the 20th century galleries. George Catlin, Edward Hopper, and Ansel Adams are here. Charles Willson Peale's George Washington. Pastoral works by John Singer Sargent and Frederic Remington. A breathtaking 2008 oil on linen called Enassamishhinjijweian by Tom Uttech - a sky filled, filled with birds and a lone wolf, back to viewer, sitting in the middle. An upside-down reconstruction of Da Vinci's The Last Supper made of spools of thread. And on, and on, and on.

What better way to emerge from this experience than into the brilliant, sunny landscape of the Arkansas Ozarks? The natural beauty of Crystal Bridges' grounds allows for introspection, reflection, and continuation of thought about the artwork, and I personally find this more rewarding than being dumped on the city street looking for the subway. I will be thinking of Crystal Bridges for many weeks to come, and I'm already planning my next visit. Alice Walton is working on acquiring more Georgia O'Keefe, among other works, so the permanent exhibit will continue to change and grow. For now, Crystal Bridges ranks up there with every amazing museum experience I have ever had - on equal par with the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery in London, or the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Crystal Bridges firmly settles into the philosophy that art is not about number of collections or famous paintings, but about the human experience. It is our reaction to art that makes art special, and when that reaction is constructed on equal par with nature and sense of place, then it is an experience very well spent.

Arkansas Birch

Gallery and Restaurant, late afternoon

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