Crystal Bridges Museum Review, Part 2: Culture’s Invitation to Nature

In Part 1 of this review, I focused on the contentious origins of the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the problematic concept of provincialism that quietly plagues any small or medium-sized cultural center in this country.

Built with the purpose of redefining a predominantly rural community as a new cultural destination, the greatest challenge for the CBMAA is to create a space and collection capable of meeting the established standards for world-class museums while also representing solidarity with its specific location.

Although the work on the grounds and building has yet to be completed, the museum has already proven itself to be generally successful in striking this delicate balance. In some instances, however, its achievement comes hand-in-hand with a curatorial timidity that has kept the CBMAA from being as intellectually daring as it could be.

Be that as it may, there is much to celebrate in the new Crystal Bridges Museum. One of its most refreshing aspects is the self-evident intention of all involved to create an innovative space that responds to the natural and cultural environment of the institution’s surroundings without sacrificing the larger story of American art.

Both in- and outside of the building itself, the curving lines and sloping shapes of Moshe Safdie’s architectural design clearly draw on the forms of organic bodies, while the many walls of glass invite as much contemplation of the world outside as the art within.

Not only does his design harmonize well with its natural setting, but it is in easy dialogue with another nearby structure of architectural note: the glass and steel Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, designed by Fay Jones and Maurice Jennings and dedicated in 1988.

If museums are the secular cathedrals of modernity, then the parallel designs of these two spiritual houses seem particularly telling. Both museum and chapel were designed to allow the natural world to visually penetrate the interior and define the visitor’s experience of the space. Taken together, the buildings’ shared concern with transparency and the inclusion of the natural environment suggest the development of a noteworthy local trope in contemporary architecture and the potential for the cultivation of a related style.

Similarly, landscape architect Scott Eccleston modified the CBM’s grounds, which constitute a lightly forested area with trails, streams, and—eventually—a lake that abuts the rear of the building, but did not drastically alter their character. The outdoor sculpture and installations, too, were chosen for their responsiveness to the natural environment, although the sensitivity or sophistication of this responsiveness varies. Highlights include James Turrell’s site-specific installation The Way of Color (2009), which incorporates native rock into his signature investigation of natural light effects; Roxy Paine’s stainless steel tree, Yield (2011), located at the museum’s entrance; and Mark di Suvero’s Lowell’s Ocean (2005–2008), visible both in- and outside of the building.

A preoccupation with nature continues throughout the collection, along with a few other areas of focus. The CBMAA’s own literature describes these themes as “artists’ encounters with and responses to nature; strong women, both as subjects and makers of art; the ongoing dialogue between American artists and other world cultures; and the continuing role of the artist as innovator.”

For a nature-loving, feminist, cross-cultural art historian like myself, that is a very exciting declaration of intent.

A wander around the museum revealed the list to have been arranged in decreasing order of success or urgency, although each concept was indeed present. A fifth motif, not mentioned in the literature but clearly woven throughout the collection, was the subject of conflict. However, this is perhaps the inevitable but unintended consequence of focusing on works that deal with issues of nature, gender, innovation, and cross-cultural interaction.

I was pleased with the quality and selection of much of the work on display throughout the collection, a sample of which can be found in the images at the end of this post. I also liked that between the chronologically divided sections were areas where people could sit and peruse any of a large collection of books. While tables supporting a few exhibition catalogues directly related to the show at hand have become commonplace in temporary exhibits, the selections provided by the CBM are far more comprehensive—and the sitting areas far more welcoming—than found elsewhere.

My greatest criticism of the museum is that it tends to be a little too safe, as was particularly evident in the temporary exhibition of contemporary work titled, Wonder World: Nature and Perception in Contemporary American Art. Excluded from the title but endemic to the works featured in Wonder World was a clear preference for contemporary artists drawing on historical modes of making. Each of these topics—nature, perception, and traditional practices in contemporary art—is a welcome basis for an exhibition, and there is quite a bit of good work in the show. Yet, when viewed together, the pieces felt a little one-note and lacking in radically innovative contributions.

Stagnation is particularly a problem for a museum that takes “artist as innovator” as one of its driving concepts. And with a subject as broad as wonder, nature, and perception, the narrowness of artistic approach seems doubly strange. For instance, why not include people who take the systems of nature as their starting point? Or who play with the nature of nature via an investigation of physics or biology or even taxonomy? While there is nothing wrong with utilizing the convention of representation in contemporary art, there are so many contemporary artists working in non-representational modes, or whose relationships to nature and perception are both subtle and complex, that to lean so heavily on visually and conceptually straightforward works does a disservice to the exhibition’s topic and its visitors.

My other point of concern lies in the apparent definition of American art, which tends towards the mainstream or canonical (albeit expanded for both gender and, in the more recent sections, race). For example, although the collection includes depictions of Native Americans, I do not recall any historical objects by Native Americans in the main galleries.* I suspect this is due partly to lines drawn by citizenship and partly to pre-existing art historical categories put in place to make collections and the narratives they tell manageable and coherent.

In other words, the presence of these somewhat arbitrary collection standards and definitions is not only understandable, but in accordance with typical museum practice. However, should the CBM choose to complicate the concept of “American” in the future by incorporating works which do not stem mainly from European traditions, the story they could tell would be fuller and, in my opinion, more interesting. Such a shift would also represent a challenging and innovative curatorial decision that is already overdue in most museological practice.

Finally, the café is worth mentioning, as it represents a fusion of a high-end sensibility that is typical of museum eateries and the low prices that are a hallmark of both Wal-Mart and Midwestern towns. Even here, the museum exhibits a savvy awareness of the expectations of its varied audience that, if continued, will be the institution’s greatest strength.

Indeed, perhaps what the Crystal Bridges Museum does best, and what it needs to do most, is break down the centuries-long fallacy that nature and culture represent binary opposites. During a period of wide-spread concern for the environment, increased use of urban gardens and suburban farms, and the decentralization of ideas and information away from large cosmopolitan cities, a new museum that takes the fusion of nature and culture as its basis is truly an institution that embodies the concerns of its time.

For further exhibition and visiting information, go to the Crystal Bridges Museum website:

*The CBM does have a dedicated section of cases that presents samples from the collections of other local museums. In addition to representing a uniquely neighborly practice, the cases also suggest the kinds of materials that may be related to, but are not otherwise present in, the CBM’s own collection. Among these is a display for the Museum of Native American History (formerly the Museum of Native American Artifacts).

Jenny Holzer, Venice Installation: Gallery D (Second Antechamber), 1990, seen through Frederick Eversley’s Big Red Lens, 1985
Jim Hodges, When We Stay, 1997
Devorah Sperber, After The Last Supper, 2005
Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Room, 2007-08
Walton Ford, The Island, 2009
Nick Cave, Soundsuits, 2010
Roxy Paine, Bad Lawn, 1998
Andrew Wyeth, Airborne, 1996
Jamie Wyeth, Orca Bates, 1990
Richard Estes, Antarctica, 2007
Evan Penny, Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be. Variation #2, 2010
Max Ferguson, Time, 2006
John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth) [detail], 1765
George Winter, Ten Potawatomi Chiefs, 1837
Richard Caton Woodville, War News from Mexico, 1848
Gilbert Stuart, William Smith, ca. 1801–02
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, Marquis, de Lafayette, 1825
Martin Johnson Heade, Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle, ca. 1875–90
Dennis Miller Bunker, Anne Page, 1887
Mary Cassatt, The Reader, 1877
Thomas Eakins, Professor Benjamin Howard Rand, 1874
William Holbrook Beard, School Rules, 1887
Maria Oakey Dewing, Rose Garden, 1901
John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife [detail], 1885
Thomas Eakins, The Model, ca. 1908
Maxfield Parrish, The Lantern Bearers, 1908
Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Landscape, 1943
Arshile Gorky, Composition (Still Life), 1936–37
Will Barnet, Woman Reading, 1965
Jasper Johns, Bread, High School Days, and Light Bulb, 1969
Oscar Bluemner, Self-Portrait, 1933
Wayne Thiebaud, Supine Woman, 1963
Kara Walker, A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, 2008
Louise Nevelson, Night Zag Wall, 1969–74
Kerry James Marshall, Our Town, 1995
Lynda Benglis, Eat Meat, 1969/1975
James Turrell, The Way of Color, 2009

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz

Crystal Bridges Museum Review, Part 1: A Meditation on New York, Northwest Arkansas, and the Meaning of Provincialism in the 21st century

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849. Image from Wikipedia:

Back in 2005, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton reportedly purchased Asher B. Durand’s 1849 painting, Kindred Spirits, for $35 million. While the practice of incredibly wealthy people paying incredibly high prices for paintings would normally receive little more than a shrug or eye roll by most jaded capitalists, Ms. Walton’s case drew a bit more attention because to acquire the painting she outbid a joint attempt by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art to purchase it. Doing so also served as a national public announcement of her intention to build a new museum of American art in her hometown of Bentonville in northwest Arkansas.Although the deal warranted coverage in the New York Times, I only learned of the semi-scandalous venture a few years later via my husband’s grandparents during a visit to their home in Bella Vista, a small suburban town neighboring Bentonville. Good hosts and frequent champions of the Waltons, they relayed the tale both with the intention of entertaining us as well as a sincere pride in the impressiveness of Ms. Walton’s victory over such major institutions.

My own reaction was more ambivalent.

I sympathized with the desire to create a public institution that served a community which otherwise did not have much in-person access to major works of art. I also believe that there is something to be said for spreading culturally significant objects around to different locations (as a security measure against disaster, at least). And although all museums want to build the strongest and most cohesive collections possible, it is difficult to argue that the Met or National Gallery “need” another painting. Indeed, although much can be said about the historical significance of Kindred Spirits, the overall collections of museums like the Met are so vast that even major works of art can be easily overlooked by the casual visitor. If you want to highlight the importance of an individual piece, smaller venues tend to be best.

On the other hand, when it comes down to the numbers, it is impossible to suppose that as many people will see objects housed in a small town in Northwest Arkansas as would in either New York or Washington DC.

Ethically, too, the purchase rankled. Although everyone in the field knows that the art economy and its related institutions are dependent on the generosity of a handful of wealthy patrons, it is nonetheless unsettling to have a single individual tank the combined efforts of two large and distinguished cultural institutions. The fact that this money came from the Wal-Mart empire, one of the most divisive and problematic businesses of recent decades, only shone a brighter light on the morally ambiguous nature of the discipline.

Furthermore, it was—and is—difficult to read Ms. Walton’s purchase as occurring outside of this country’s supposed “culture wars,” in which progressiveness, urbanity, and both coasts seem to be grouped together and set against conservatism, ruralism, and the rest of the country. Although I grew up in St. Louis, I have spent most of my adult life in coastal cities or abroad. There are reasons for this that go beyond the simple necessities of education and employment, and yet I am still attached enough to my hometown to refer to my visits there as “going home.” At the time of our trip to Bella Vista, we had recently moved to New York so that I could pursue my PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and my ambivalence about Ms. Walton’s purchase and intentions for a museum were really only the other side of my already existing discomfort about my new place of residence.

New York is, after all, an undisputed center for art and culture in the United States. In terms of resources and historical importance, there is no better place to study art, especially the development of modern and contemporary art, in this country.

However, there were two things that I noticed early on that never stopped bothering me during my time in NYC. The first was an unshakable sense that the city had reached a point in which the creative forces that had made it great were being strangled by its own history. Work in galleries tended to be more safe than interesting. The differences between these and the “provincial” galleries of other cities were primarily twofold: 1) the New York galleries had a higher asking price for their objects and 2) even works from other parts of the globe were in easy dialogue with the New York-based movements of the mid-20th century.

The second trend I noticed is closely related to the first: the frequent recurrence of the term “provincial” (especially in academic settings) as a shorthand means of dismissing an idea, argument, place, work, or person. Beyond being obviously condescending and shabby scholarship, such use of the term is particularly absurd in a place like New York which is not only infamously obsessed with itself to the exclusion of most other places, but which had the same term frequently thrown at it less than a century ago when the entirety of the United States was understood to represent the cultural backwater of Europe. Of course, it is probably this very history that has fostered the current enthusiasm for applying the term elsewhere.

As a native of “fly over country”—and as someone who has seen places like St. Louis grow into increasingly complex but perpetually undervalued cultural centers—I am admittedly sensitive to these little jabs from my colleagues and peers. But there are advantages to being made aware of one’s own otherness, and in this case it has caused me to seriously question the very nature of provincialism in the 21st century.

After all, the idea of provincialism is based on a socio-cultural model in which ideas and goods converged and circulated primarily through a handful of urban centers (usually political or economic capitals), leaving everywhere else relatively isolated and therefore culturally inbred.

But the advent of the Internet, not to mention the increased ease of travel, has made this model nearly obsolete as it applies to smaller urban centers. Not that Internet access or travel guarantees increased creativity or a more cosmopolitan outlook. Certainly anyone wanting to deepen her own ignorance can do that as well as someone hoping to broaden her horizons. What the Internet does is decentralize information, making one’s knowledge-set an individual choice rather than an environmental inevitability.

Of course, this is only true for those who actually have access to the Internet. Poverty or lack of infrastructure—a serious issue in many rural districts—still prevent too many people from taking part in an increasingly global culture. Even these cases, however, represent a changeable and changing situation that differentiates them from the classic model of provincialism.

For those of us fortunate enough to participate in the global stream of ideas, the world is wide open. Indeed, as countless authors have already noted, the greater problem now seems to be in knowing what to pay attention to and what to believe. One of the results of this new circumstance is that the role of major cultural institutions, including colleges and museums, has become to narrow and direct our focus rather than broaden our horizons.

I believe it is that embattled privilege—the privilege of determining the narrative of culture—that has produced a certain intellectual rigidness in some of our finest academic institutions and lies at the heart of our so-called “culture wars.”

This is the context into which the Crystal Bridges Museum has been conceived and brought to life. Stay tuned for the second part of my review, which will deal with the museum itself.