American Art in Mid-Sized America: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
An institution is a cipher—it absorbs its surroundings, its founders, its donors, its intended audience, the accumulation of its decisions and produces a semi-conscious affect for its actual audience. Though all are in some way arranged for the public good, the institution’s internal definition of and attitude towards the public determines what that means in real terms: in bricks and mortar, glass and concrete, ideas and underlying reasons for being. The ambitious new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas offers a complicated and conflicted projection of its public that left me mystified and searching for what, exactly, bothered me so much about the museum and its affect.
Moshe Safdie’s pavilions that make up the museum proper are a striking series of shell-shaped domes composed of copper roofs, pine ceilings and concrete supports. The structures offer an airy couching for the collection and emanate an approachability from all areas of the grounds. They are interconnected in an arc around a body of water, offering views of the other pavilions at key moments, and give the entire experience a remarkable continuity throughout. The dominant wood and copper features are designed to wear over time and respond to the surrounding landscape, itself a noble concept compared to the rigid concrete of most institutions that give off an uninteresting immutability. The experience is effectively organic and is, arguably, one of the most successful museum structures in the nation.
Yet, even in the midst of this unabashed success, the museum depicts a particular point of view towards its audience, possibly born out of its context of Northwest Arkansas, possibly that of its staff and founders, possibly an unintentional byproduct of practical concerns. Of all of the structures that make up Crystal Bridges, easily the most highlighted element is the swelling cafe and restaurant that greets you as you enter the lobby and is surely among the largest museum cafes in the world. Seating several hundred and taking up the entire central pavilion, the clear conclusion is that this is a destination built for field trips, receptions and chartered buses. The impressive crowds around me reinforced the point. Everyone was there in groups: private school kids in uniform, guided groups from outlying towns, retirees bused in from community centers, multi-family vacations and the occasional double date. At 2pm on a Wednesday, the tables were still full, the lines still significant, and the groups still finding their way from the cafe to the collection. As an indicator of attendance, this has to be a success, but, again, calls into question the experience the museum is leading those throngs of people towards.
Crystal Bridges’s stated goal is to “welcome all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of landscape.” This is a jarring (and telling) statement of purpose for a major art museum to set out. Compare this to the Whitney Museum of American Art (to present “the full range of twentieth-century and contemporary American art”) or the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (to offer “an unparalleled record of the American experience” and “reveal key aspects of America’s rich artistic and cultural history”) and you begin to see the distinct point of view offered at Crystal Bridges. Art is powerful, true. It is also true that art may celebrate the American spirit. Many great artists have done so. However, to situate a collection of American Art as a celebration of American spirit is certainly to direct both the creation and reception of that collection away from anything overly controversial or questioning, essentially insulating the collection from controversy of any kind. This paradigm played out in a consistent reading of art history in service of a lukewarm overview of white-people-painting-Indians, Warhol doing a Dolly Parton (this choice of Warhols is either perversely cynical or pathetic), romantic landscapes of unspoiled territories, and Norman Rockwells, Grant Woods, and Thomas Hart Bentons giving us the image of the heartland we know and love. Or consider the only two special exhibitions announced to date: Celebrating the American Spirit, the premier of the Crystal Bridges collection and, to follow, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. We are fully on message here, no doubt.
I am being narrow-minded, yes. There was also Jenny Holzer’s Venice Biennale installation that brought me in the first place (the most inaccessible piece in the collection, both literally and conceptually) that seemed almost comically difficult to get to from any of the main galleries, James Turell’s The Way of Color (closed when I was there), and very nice Marisols and Lichtensteins. In a few of the most hopeful points of the collection, there are also a pair of major Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall works engaging racial conflicts and the rare reception of African American artists into the mainstream. Ultimately, however, one drifts through the collection with a definite sense of edited art history. The museum has not claimed or contended to be comprehensive. However, the interesting question is, do they have a responsibility to be?
As a now-curator who grew up in Tupelo, MS, pop, 34,546, I am disappointed at the choice to present the culture of Northwest Arkansas back to itself. Very few works at Crystal Bridges were probing, searching, challenging or controversial. There was almost no installation art, video or new media work, little that would be considered difficult or inscrutable. On the whole, it presents a moderately conservative, wholesome American art that, yeah, celebrates the American spirit. The power of art comes in part from its ability to speak in a voice that we would otherwise never hear. An institution is a cipher, yes, but the best also lead, probe, challenge and, ultimately, change their audiences. A collection can change much faster than a mindset. Bentonville and the mid-sized American city at least deserve the opportunity to see American art as it is—like us, conflicted.