On our way to Bentonville, Ark. and the Crystal Bridges Museum my college-bound son and I spent an evening in Branson, Mo., where the enthusiastic and demonstrative conservatives go to celebrate their values.
The next morning we arrived in Bentonville to see the new -- acclaimed and equally chastised -- Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a gift from Alice Walton, built from Wal-Mart profits. As we were walking from the parking lot, my son proclaimed, "This is where culture goes to die." I'm not sure either of us agreed with that assessment, but I can see where it came from. We'd just driven through the core of other American values, over-the-top patriotism and deep-fried everything. Truly, neither of us had any idea what to expect.
The approach to the Crystal Bridges Museum, through a brand-new subdivision, to a lush, undulating woods, opened up to a clean, predominantly concrete, diminutive facade with a beautiful Roxy Paine metal tree standing proudly in front. My first thought was of relief. "Great that they've got some contemporary art here."
Most of the museum buildings are lower than the entrance. The architecture is immediately drop dead gorgeous, innovative and of the 21st century. Greeters are everywhere, ready to hold you hand and facilitate your experience. Admission to the permanent collection, which presents a chronology of American art, is free, but you've still got to check in so your demographics can be reported. Before you can enter the exhibition, you are instructed how to behave and how to look at art; no flash photography, no gum, and always stay back at least 12 inches.
There is a ton of wonderful American Art to see. Lots of favorites; Charles Wilson Peale, limners, Heade, Durand, Innes, Johnson, Chase, Cassat. I didn't notice many omissions.
I was surprised by what we saw when we got to the 20th century. I didn't think the values I associate with Wal-Mart and the South would include as much non-mainstream art or artists as we saw; artists thought, or known, to be homosexuals (Hartley, Tooker), African-American (Bearden, Lawrence), female (Mitchell, Holzer) or a Communist (Kent). Could it be that I'm more opinionated than those I criticize?
And then the 21st century, where the challenge is to efficiently spend money to acquire exemplary art. It is much easier to get great pre-1950s art for your money, than art made since. Art by Johns and Rauschenberg is present, but doesn't shine.
What does shine however is the last art in the chronology; wonderful works by (Chicagoans) Nick Cave and Kerry James Marshall.
I don't have this all in context yet; predominantly the dichotomy between location and content. Published criticism mostly addresses the folly of taking art to the hinterlands where the philistines will have no idea, to say nothing of appreciation, of what's going on. That's not what I experienced. Yes, the audience was pasty white, and the teens on the elevator acted like it was their first time in one, and we felt we were at a convention for the Daughters of the American Revolution, but so what?
If we don't have the power of our conviction, the belief that good art can sway the masses, imbue the spirit and light the path, then maybe we are making, or looking, at the wrong art. Art may not be for everyone, but everyone can appreciate art. This is not where culture goes to die. This is where it rises to new challenges.
PS: With the day-old announcement that Crystal Bridges will assume co-ownership of Georgia O'Keefe's sizeable donation of American art to Fisk University, it's clear that Crystal Bridges' mission is not yet fulfilled, though its museum may be.