Like Northwest Arkansas, to an outsider, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is not what it seems at first. The name is an odd choice—could be a great porn pseudonym, or a terrible actual name of a character in a soap opera. I get whiffs of Dynasty when I hear it.
As fans of all things drag, our previously uninitiated travel contingent (me, Stephen, Meredith) decided that Miss Crystal Bridges was a female impersonator from the area and an appropriate contender name on an upcoming season of Rupaul’s Drag Race.
Or, perhaps “Crystal Britches.” I dunno.
The reality of the name is far more serious. It represents a $1 billion investment in the arts enrichment of an area traditionally ignored by cultural elites on each of the coasts. You don’t think Arkansas when you think of world-class art from artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Mark Rothko. Not to mention, structural design by Moshe Safdie, the Israeli architect better known for projects like Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
The name Crystal Bridges was chosen because the museum is built atop a natural spring on a series of pavilions made of glass, poured concrete, and cedar wood, each curving and undulating to mimic nature. The campus integrates with its surroundings, the wooded landscape navigable with a series of trails. Large-scale sculptural installations dot the 120 acre property, by artists like Yayoi Kusama and R. Buckminster Fuller (“Buckie”).
The campus also features a transplanted Frank Lloyd Wright house, originally built in New Jersey, expertly reconstructed to its original organic modernist state.
Alice Walton is the real name to know, though. She’s the daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, which started in Bentonville, Arkansas and forever changed the trajectory of the region. Not only is Alice unimaginably wealthy (to the tune of $40 billion in wealth, compared to Oprah’s paltry $3 billion), but the region has doubled in population over the last 30 years, thanks to its affordability and plentiful jobs at prominent businesses like Tyson (poultry) and J.B. Hunt (trucking).
Famously, Walmart requires that its ~1,300 suppliers and affiliates have a physical presence in the region, which has brought even more high earners who work for companies like Johnson & Johnson, Mars, and Triad Retail Media, from bigger, more sophisticated markets.
Coupled with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, amenities like the Razorback regional greenway (36 miles of continuous trail), and many global businesses with local outposts, it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Crystal Bridges exists. And, to my surprise, admission to the core collection is free, so families and tourists swarm the place on the weekends. If the goal was to make fine art accessible and expand locals’ cultural vernacular, making the venue free to enter is a good strategy.
I was delighted, ahead of our trip, to search LinkedIn and find that a fellow alumnus of SDA Bocconi works at Crystal Bridges. She’s involved in marketing, and was at Bocconi for a master’s degree in arts management. Brittany joined us for drinks in Fayetteville (at Maxine’s) Saturday night, then we had brunch together on Sunday at Crystal Bridges’ restaurant, Eleven.
At 28, she is one of the many young people plucked from across the country to work at the museum, which in its relative infancy presents an opportunity for first-hand exposure to the caliber of art that many in the profession don’t get until much later in their careers.
The current exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe works (plus her contemporaries) was really fantastic, if only from a layperson’s point-of-view. I love rich colors, clean lines, but with some fluidity and movement mixed in. Some of the pieces mixed in with the O’Keeffes were excellent, technically and artistically.
The museum’s permanent collection is split into early, mid-century, and modern American art, culminating with interactive pieces like After Grant Wood (American Gothic) 2 by Deborah Sperber, a trompe l’œil made with 986 spools of thread that when viewed through a lens, mimics the famous painting. And Untitled (L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which is a spill of green candies on the floor, individually wrapped in cellophane, available to patrons to take and eat. The piece represents the slow deterioration of a body ravaged by AIDS.
From a layout, flow, and facilitation perspective, I was equally impressed. Visitors are encouraged to start and end in specific spots, but free movement backward and forward is easy. We even paused halfway through the tour, cutting through the courtyard and past a Keith Haring sculpture to refresh at the coffee bar.
Very little of the museum is off-limits, private, or restricted. Perhaps those areas are just well-concealed, but it is a credit to the architect for designing both a visually- and functionally-pleasing space.
I particularly liked the use of outdoor spaces for art too. Down the path that leads to Downtown Bentonville, past the Frank Lloyd Wright house and a reflection pond, there is a James Turrell installation. A sort of amphitheater with an open ceiling and LED lights, it distorts the view of the sky at sunset, turning the blue sky gray, purple, and pink. Each night, it runs its little light show, for those in the know.
Without hesitation, I put Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the top five most impressive and well-conceived art museums I’ve visited. It may not be voluminous or encyclopedic, but it’s curation is diverse and its display space succinct enough to complete in an afternoon. Only a small portion of the museum’s total collection is viewable at any one time, so the mix and arrangement is always changing.
My friend Dustin can attest to this, as he has been a member of the museum since its opening on 11/11/11, nearly seven years ago. Accumulation began long before the building was completed and opened, as early as 2002. Since 2011, the museum has purchased more major pieces by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns (for sums like $57 million and $36 million), and has (again, smartly) inked relationships with affiliate museums, including the Louvre.
In any place, this would all be very impressive. In Northwest Arkansas, it’s astonishing. I can’t wait to go back.