"THE EXPERIENCE IS MORE LIKE JOINING A DANCE WITH A FLIGHT OF GIANT BEETLES, CATCHING A RHYTHM BETWEEN MAGNIFICENCE AND ABSURDITY."
he phenomenon of the privately funded, world class museum is particularly prevalent in the United States, where philanthropy has traditionally outweighed government arts funding. All the same, it’s unusual to find one of these museums outside urban centres or wealthy enclaves. Especially, one might have thought, in rural Arkansas, where the most prominent cultural hubs are the megalithic Walmarts, each projecting a jaunty yellow sun against a bright blue sky. All the more appropriate, therefore, that the Arkansas supermarket chain should form the basis of the Walton Family Foundation, the organisation behind the region’s best-known private museum.
I was expecting the museum to be a hybrid between a mausoleum and a McMansion. Instead, the architecture is surprisingly relatable – Moshe Safdie’s nexus of pavilions and ponds doesn’t have the forbidding air of a Tadao Ando tabernacle or a Jean-François Bodin box. The experience is more like joining a dance with a flight of giant beetles, catching a rhythm between magnificence and absurdity.
In its mission statement, Crystal Bridges makes claim to that most elusive of ideals, “the American spirit.” We are invited to “celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature.” The description of the setting is no overstatement: the museum is situated on 120 acres of native Ozark forest, punctuated with artworks by the likes of Louise Bourgeoise and James Turrell. The museum galleries present five centuries of the nation’s art, starting with the slightly squished portrait style of the European settlers, the prophetic vistas of the Hudson River School, and various anxiety-inducing paintings of huntsmen wrestling with bears. Key works of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism are ticked off the list, as are collection highlights such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed (1932) and Andy Warhol’s Dolly Parton (1985). One of the most important works on show is Kerry James Marshall’s Our Town (1995) which scrapes at the white veneer of the American Dream.
Subtle critiques of the idea of “American art” are padded by displays of “American genius.” A Fly’s Eye Dome by Buckminster Fuller is installed in the grounds, and a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home has been uprooted from suburbia – two structures indicative of the nation’s fondness for utopian societies, megalomaniac inventors, democratic aspirations, and technological mysticism. Yet the question persists – whose “America” does Crystal Bridges represent? That of the super-rich, the Arkansas farmer, the Walmart employee, the children in the education suites, the dreamers, the undocumented? One might simultaneously ask – what is meant by the word “art”?
When I visited the museum, it was the beginning of autumn. The trails were muddy but walkable, and I took a map which itemized the artworks on route. The sculptures symbolised by grey triangles on the map, Robert Tannen’s Grains of Sand, were remarkably difficult to find – until I noticed the large stone boulders tagged with the artist’s aluminum signature, “A-RT.” Sourced from nearby forests, these were surely a very “American” art form – though they identified a geological strata far older than the concepts of “America” and “art.” The boulders expressed an irony which underpins the endeavor of art making, nation building, and museum construction; yet they were also objects of aesthetic beauty, strange witnesses to the creativity of deep time. A museum is a frame which reveals the richness and instability of the ways we make sense of the world. No sun on a blue sky, but a vision of mud and water and boulders.