After an impromptu drive around the neighborhoods of Bentonville—where Americana is in full swing and scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings are brought to life—I finally spotted a sign for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. A twisting, tree-lined driveway led me down one of the museum’s 120 acres of trails and parks, where “being in nature opens you up for the experience of engaging with a work of art,” or so says the museum’s president, Don Bacigalupi.
The driveway opened into a circle where a stainless steel tree sculpture by Roxy Paine titled Yield(2011) stood alone in the grassy center. It’s the first work of art visible on the museum’s grounds and it focuses on how the natural and artificial intersect—a fitting sculpture for a museum that explores similar subject matter.
The short stroll from the parking lot does not allow for a view of the museum’s unique architecture. I walked behind a Hispanic cowboy to the elevator, listening to the heels of his boots hit the concrete. I stood beside him as the elevator doors opened, scattering a blond family in burgundy Razorback shirts. Th e doors closed and we descended to the museum’s main entrance.
Two greeters positioned by the entrance doors welcomed visitors into the first gallery, advised us of the rules (no flash photography or pens), and of their availability to answer any questions. The lighting was ambient and echoed the relaxed and friendly demeanor of the greeters. Floating around, I overheard the greeters exchanging doubts about passing the museum’s docent training program. The Tyson family of Tyson Foods recently donated $5 million for an American art research and residency program, an area of scholarship less developed than many other fields of art history research.
“George Washington must have had rosy cheeks,” observed one visitor in the colonial gallery after a few moments in front of Charles Winston Peale’s well-known portrait of our first president. “He’s always portrayed that way.”
The visitor rolled her mother’s wheelchair beside me as I stood in front of an oil study for a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette by Samuel F. B. Morse. The Marquis de Lafayette was just 19 when he came to America from France and soon became like a son to Washington, fighting alongside him throughout the Revolutionary War. The city of New York commissioned Morse to paint the Marquis’ picture when he returned to America. While Morse was painting the Marquis’ portrait, he received a letter from his father informing him that his wife had died suddenly from a heart attack. He rushed home, leaving his final portrait of the Marquis unfinished, as the museum’s unfinished oil study suggests. When Morse arrived home, he found his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken, Morse put aside painting to focus instead on creating a more rapid form of communication that would have allowed him a proper goodbye to his wife. Thirteen years later, he patented the Morse code, followed by the telegraph.
I sat down on a bench in the center of the room, watching visitors move around the curved gallery like carousel horses. A small girl jumped in front of the portrait Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. by John Singleton Copley(1765) to view her pet flying squirrel in the foreground. Her mother leaned in closely to examine Mrs. Atkinson’s precisely painted pearls.
As I continued into the 19th century gallery, John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife(1885) drew me in with its revealing view into the life of the Scottish author best known for writing Treasure Island. Stevenson was known to fidget around the room as he wrote and Sargent captured him in mid stride, perhaps mulling over his soon to be published novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Stevenson wrote the novel quickly after waking from a dream. It is rumored that he burned the first manuscript after seeing how upset the story made his wife, rewriting it in less than six days, high on cocaine. Sargent’s painting was sold to Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn in 2004 who intended to display it in his newest casino, Wynn Las Vegas. Fortunately for visitors to Crystal Bridges, Wynn’s gallery venture failed.
Between the galleries are small, naturally lit rooms where visitors can sink into a leather sofa and flip through one of the hundreds of books casually arranged on nearby tables. Glass-enclosed corridors provide floor to ceiling views of what some might consider the most beautiful part of the museum: its landscape.
Moshe Safdie, an architect known for his special attention to a building’s relationship with its natural environment, designed the museum inside an existing hollow of the Ozark Mountains. Safdie was born in Haifa in 1938 and moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1953.
“I’m going to do something very unique,” Safdie revealed to Director of Facilities and Grounds Scott Eccleston, in his Israeli accent, “I’m going to let the landscape completely absorb the building.”
Crystal Bridges’ architecture can easily steal the show. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame striking views of the stream, which not only surrounds the museum but also flows underneath its buildings. The museum’s surrounding hills and valleys are mimicked in its architecture. Arched pine ceilings allow cathedral-like light into parts of the museum—most notably its restaurant, Eleven. Beyond the glass, there was another collection of original American art on display I had yet to discover.
Scott Eccleston’s encyclopedic knowledge of American plants does not go unnoticed at the museum. He views the land surrounding Crystal Bridges as its living collection. Every tree over six inches in caliper is recorded and entered into the museum’s database.
“These native American plants embody the American spirit and tell the history of the land,” he explained. The plants even have their own Facebook page.
Six unique trails present manicured paths through which visitors can experience the museum’s grounds. One of the featured sculptors on the museum’s grounds is New Orleans-based conceptual artist Robert Tannen, who considered how to approach the museum’s surrounding forest from an artist’s standpoint.
“My interest was to make the forest a part of the museum,” Tannen told me.
For his sculpture Grains of Sand (2011), Tannen placed 15 boulders of Arkansas native limestone—ranging from one to twenty tons in weight—at 15 sites on the ground of the museum that highlighted a beauty mark of the land or a striking view of the museum.
When I worked at Christie’s in New York, I delighted in walking through the auction preview exhibitions. A week before being scheduled for the auction block, roughly 50 paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures would rest in one of Christie’s galleries, each vying for the attention of its future owner. When the doors opened, the gallery came to life, filled with hums of approval and lip-to-ear whispers. Potential bidders would glide around the room nodding at familiar names while jotting down notes in their catalogues.
After each auction, I would read over the freshly printed auction results that listed each work’s buyer as either private or public—the latter meant these artworks would likely be going to a museum. All too often, paintings moved into private hands. In a week’s time, they would be shipped and hung on walls in homes to which I would probably never be invited. For one private collector in the heartland of America, those works inspired her to create a public space for her growing picture book of United States history.
Alice Walton, the only daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has acquired a collection of American art that is the foundation for the $800 million Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art founded in her hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, a city of 36,000. In only a decade, she has built the first museum of American art in the 21st century and filled its 200,000-square-foot exhibition space with a comprehensive collection.
Wal-Mart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt, Johnson & Johnson, and PepsiCo are just a few of the large American corporations that are located in or around Bentonville, some of which have donated millions to the museum. With such deep-pocketed contributions from its corporate neighbors and support from its residents, Crystal Bridges has the essential ingredients for success. And with this, cause for jealousy.
New Yorkers howled with anger when Walton offered a record $35 million for Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849). This quintessential Hudson River School painting illustrates man’s connection with nature, which is the elegant undercurrent of the museum’s collection. Her purchase of this masterpiece of American landscape painting demonstrated to the art world she was amassing a serious collection of American art. Today, Kindred Spirits is the centerpiece of Crystal Bridges’ collection.
Back inside, a tattooed teenager sat quietly on a bench in the 19th century gallery, listening to her iPod and sketching in front of a Mary Cassatt painting. Shuna Wilson, museum security guard, interrupted my inspection of the Cassatt to draw attention to the diligently drawing adolescent seated on the bench.
“Did y’all see her stuff?” Wilson grew taller with excitement, pointing to the oblivious artist. She stood behind her, hands on her hips. “Girl,” she admired, “that is awesome!”
“This place is alive,” Wilson continued, reaching out to rebutton my sweater where I had missed a button. “There are all kinds of people that visit this museum,” she reflected. “Talented people come here to be inspired. Being surrounded by great art drives their talent even more,” she pointed to the seated artist. When asked to name her favorite work in the museum she replied without hesitation: “Rosie. That’s my girl!” 
Since the museum’s opening last year, several curators have left their positions. Most recently, Don Bacigalupi, the museum’s esteemed executive director has been reassigned to a new position as president. Is such rapid employee movement in the museum’s first year typical of a new institution trying to find its feet? Or do these departures reveal challenges working with Walton, or in Bentonville?
In the contemporary gallery hangs a painting from Jackson Pollock’s psychoanalytical period, Reclining Woman (c.1938 – 41), when he underwent Jungian psychoanalysis to deal with his alcoholism, which wasn’t working too well. Pollock’s earlier realistic painting would later evolve into his well-known drip paintings, an expression of his manic ego for which he is best known. But what inspired his change of style? Visitors need only to walk across the gallery to view the large abstract painting Heavenly Sympathy (c.1947) by Janet Sobel.
In 1945, the virtually unknown Sobel was given a museum exhibition by famed gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, who was entranced by her drip-like paintings. Pollock would view her work one year later, noting that Sobel’s paintings were the first examples he had ever seen of their kind. He began experimenting with dripping paint onto his canvas-covered floor which again grabbed the attention of Guggenheim. With her help, Pollock would become the poster boy for Abstract Expressionism—forging American artists into the previously European-dominated spotlight. Without the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim, some question whether American Abstract Expressionism would have risen as prominently as it did.
And so the story of American art continues with Alice Walton and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, whose architecture, artworks, and free access to exceptional art have been set in motion in the middle of America. While Walton may lack the gregarious personality and Parisian connections that attracted artists to Guggenheim, her purchasing power and desire to forge relationships with other institutions such as the renowned musée du Louvre are very much the signs of a savvy 21st century collector. Each artwork in the museum—including how and why it was secured and where it is displayed—is a part of our country’s visual history.
“We believe that everyone who walks in the door, no matter who they are, has some frame of knowledge already and can experience the artwork in a meaningful way,” said Crystal Bridges’ Education Director Niki Stewart. “They have their starting place. Wherever you are is enough.”
Ariana Jakub is an art consultant, educator, and gallerist living in Tulsa.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 1. April 1, 2013.