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Crystal Bridges Update: Bob Workman Resigns; “Kindred Spirits” at the Met

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Robert Workman, speaking at the Crystal Bridges site dedication

Crystal Bridges, Alice Walton‘s museum-in-construction in Bentonville, AR, has added three contemporary works to the small selection of acquisitions listed on its website.

But it has lost its director, Bob Workman.

In a Jan. 26 announcement that fell under my radar (and maybe yours), the museum disclosed that Workman, who became the museum’s executive director more than three years ago, “has decided to step down as executive director of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art so that a new director can be in place as the museum transitions from construction to its opening and for years thereafter.”

Crystal Bridges’ announcement also states:

Workman has agreed to continue with the museum until Dec. 31, 2009, to oversee major projects and to assist in the transition to the new executive director. During the transition period, day-to-day operations for the museum will be handled by the museum’s executive management team.

Little reason is given for this abrupt, unexpected departure, other than a cryptic statement that he had “decided to leave because he could not make a commitment to stay well beyond the museum opening and therefore thought the museum would be better served if he left this year.”

When I queried Workman recently about his surprise decision to quit, he would only say:

Over the past few weeks, I have moved from day-to-day operations to working on a number of specific projects, such as plans for the museum library as well as writing assignments. This was an amicable separation initiated entirely by me. I remain deeply committed to the goals of the project. After working five years [first as consultant, then as project director] on a project of this magnitude, I am interested in taking a break and evaluating my options, which include remaining here in Northwest Arkansas.

As for his future plans:

I want to keep my options open for the near term, and see what possibilities develop.

The museum was scheduled to open in 2010, but Carla Scallan of Fayetteville’s KSFM-TV reported on Mar. 12 that the museum’s planned 2010 opening “is no longer
set in stone. He [Workman] says due to the complexity of the project, they no longer have a specific date set for the completion of the
museum.”

Although the museum’s Careers web page makes no mention of the director search, on Feb. 18 it posted a new spot for a Curator of American Art, reporting to chief curator Chris Crosman.

Workman has a distinguished museum track record, including the deputy directorship at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, where he oversaw its $39-million renovation and expansion. Some of his professional colleagues have looked askance at collecting activities that occurred at Crystal Bridges on his watch, including Jan Muhlert, director of the Palmer Museum at Penn State University, who knew Workman from her time as director of the Amon Carter.

For my 2007 Wall Street Journal article on The Walton Effect (in which I characterized Alice’s pursuit of objects at other institutions as that of a “hovering culture vulture, poised to swoop down and seize tasty masterpieces from weak hands”), Muhlert stated:

“It’s worrisome that they would be considering purchases of this kind.” Ms. Muhlert expressed disapproval that “any of our colleagues would take advantage” of a museum’s selling for purposes other than “replenishing the collection.”

You can hear Workman discuss his departure here, in an interview with of “Ozarks at Large” on KUAF, the University of Arkansas’s public radio station.

Meanwhile, several of collection’s works are out on loan to other museums, including Asher B. Durand‘s “Kindred Spirits,” controversially sold in 2005 by the New York Public Library. That iconic painting is temporarily back in its former home city, displayed at the
Metropolitan Museum through May.

In a departure from the Crystal Bridge’s customary collecting habits, which lean heavily towards traditional, figurative American art, the museum recently revealed that it had acquired work by Mark di Suvero, James Turrell and Ted Jones.

Ted Jones?

The Benton County Daily Record tells us that he’s an “instructor” (actually, adjunct lecturer) at Fisk University. That financially strapped institution and Walton have long been seeking court permission to complete a deal whereby Crystal Bridges would buy a half-share in Fisk’s Stieglitz Collection for $30 million. Fisk has also loaned to Crystal Bridges a collection of prints for an exhibition, Proof Positive, now at the museum’s Massey outpost.

Here’s the new Jones acquisition:

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Ted Jones, “Saul and Jesus on the Road to Damascus,” 2005, Crystal Bridges Museum

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