“You’re going where?” was the response I received when I mentioned that I and four friends were traveling to Bentonville, Arkansas, to visit the recently opened Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, the home of Wal-Mart headquarters.
By Mary Brennan Gerster
“You’re going where?” was the response I received when I mentioned that I and four friends were traveling to Bentonville, Arkansas, to visit the recently opened Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, the home of Wal-Mart headquarters. The five of us regularly attend the theater together and branching out to explore art was an easy sell.
I first heard rumblings about the potential of this museum back in 2005 when Alice Walton, an heir to the Walton fortune, purchased, amidst enormous uproar, the iconic New York Hudson River painting Kindred Spirits (1849) by Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) from the New York Public Library. The work depicts painter Thomas Cole with poet William Cullen Bryant in a gorge in the Catskill Mountains. The outrage was over the library selling it and it being purchased for exhibition in Arkansas without opportunity for New York museums to bid. Ms. Walton also has the funds to outbid almost any other institution today.
I later read about her purchase of other important works, including one by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) in Philadelphia, which she lost to the combined efforts of local art institutions. The ones she did purchase are in my view more beautiful than the one lost. Eventually, she hired world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie and a director Don Bacigalupi and along with the 120 acres in Bentonville, a museum began to take shape.
We flew direct to Fayetteville and began our adventure in a state new to all of us. The first surprise was the miles and miles of beautiful farmland as we drove to Eureka Springs, where we found hotels with more charm than the corporate offerings in Bentonville.
The beauty of the museum amidst the very flat commercial surroundings of Bentonville is a welcome surprise. The galleries are built around the two spring fed ponds of water and are arranged chronologically. The museum complex is set in wooded acreage with trails throughout and dotted with sculptures by such artists as the delightful Roxy Paine (Met rooftop garden), Paul Manship, Robert Indiana, George Rickey, and Mark diSuvero.
As I look for museums in any place I visit, I have found that many smaller museums make the mistake of collecting second-rate work by first-name artists. At Crystal Bridges, that is not the case and the collection consists of many truly sterling examples of America’s artists from our beginnings right up to today. The weakest area is in fact the most recent of American art. But considering that the museum has only been open seven months, there is plenty of time (and clearly no lack of money) to bring 21st century art up to speed as well as to fill some gaps in other areas.
It is almost impossible to review a whole museum that covers American art from our earliest days, so I will focus on a few exceptional areas in my view — starting with the Hudson River School, of which there truly beautiful examples by Frederick Church, John Kensett, Albert Bierstadt, and Jasper Cropsey, as well as the now notorious Thomas Cole work.
Two areas of American art I find especially powerful are the group known as The Eight or the Ash Can School and the Regionalists. The former, who depicted the gritty side of American urban life, include leader Robert Henri whose work shows the influence of Manet and Velasquez. George Bellows (1882-1925) Excavation at Night (1905) will delight any New Yorker as it depicts the excavation for the magnificent Penn Station, later regretfully torn down at the behest of Robert Moses.
Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is represented with several works, including Ploughing it Under (1934), a powerful pro-labor image and honoring the American farmer, in this case an African-American. Most African-Americans were tenant farmers at that time.
Stuart Davis (1897-1964) is a true favorite of mine and there are seven brilliant, colorful, semi abstract works by this artist whose paintings sing like the jazz he loved. But it is Arthur Dove (1880-1946), whose painting Moon and Sea 11 (1923) I carry in my brain as a true treasure from this collection. It speaks of nature, serenity, and spirituality with the most simple of forms and color.
The painting that attracts the biggest crowds is Norman Rockwell’s (1894-1978) Rosie the Riveter (1943), once in a private collection and now here for all to feel truly patriotic while enjoying the humor and recognition of the power of women during the war.
There are many more I could wax eloquently about but I suggest instead that each of you consider a visit to this collection. While there, be sure to visit two of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen, designed by Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones.