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Bacigalupi Goes Bentonville; Crystal Bridges Goes Glocal

Don Bacigalupi

Repeat after me: “BAA-chee-ga-loop-ee.”

That’s the new director of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Don Bacigalupi, who held a press conference yesterday in Bentonville, AR, primarily for local and regional publications. Afterwards, he initiated some one-on-one phone chats with other journalists, including CultureGrrl.

A three-time art museum director (Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, San Diego Museum of Art, currently Toledo Museum of Art), Bacigalupi is about to lead a nascent, off-the-beaten-path institution that has attracted its share of controversy but is also one of the most generously funded art museums in the country, thanks to the deep pockets of its founder—Wal-Mart heiress and mega-collector Alice Walton.

Bacigalupi told me:

I guess I’ve had an interesting trajectory: first, very fast-growing
cities in Texas—San Antonio [where he was contemporary art curator] and then Houston; then San Diego, a
thriving, fast-growing metropolis; and then a very dramatic change [to
Toledo], an old-guard city that’s essentially shrinking; and now to a
small town [Bentonville] that has grown exponentially because of its
business prospects [as headquarters for Wal-Mart].

Although Don’s CultureGrrl interview was in the familiar too-early-to-give-specifics vein, it was clear how he convinced Alice (and, tentatively, me) that he was right for the job.

First of all, they hit it off: Walton resides in Texas, and Don said she reminded him of the women he got to know during his sojourn there:

She’s fun. She’s delightful. She’s real down-to-earth and a straight shooter.

He flatteringly compared what Alice is doing in Bentonville to what the Libbey (glass) Family did for Toledo—founding a new art museum to “cultivate the city as it grew.” What he values most about Crystal Bridges, he said, is “its vision of integrating works of art with a natural setting and great architecture,” as well as “the way that it’s being presented as a community resource [scroll down], which is something I’ve been very involved in.”

He noted with particular pride his achievements in boosting the Toledo Museum’s local audience, through outreach to community centers and in-museum programs targeted to attract new visitors (such as wine-tastings, tied to art-related programs, targeting young professionals).

But it’s not just the locals whom Bacigalupi wants to win over during his next directorship. There’s also the crucial task of cultivating contacts with the professional museum community, some of whose members have taken a dim view of Walton’s willingness (in my words) “to swoop down and seize tasty masterpieces from weak [institutional] hands,” such as the New York Public Library, Thomas Jefferson University and Fisk University—a controversy that I discussed at length in my Wall Street Journal piece, The Walton Effect.

As I revealed in that article, AAMD in February 2007 had shot off a disapproving letter to Fisk regarding its plan (still alive, but as yet unrealized) to sell to Crystal Bridges a half-share in the Stieglitz Collection that had been given to the Nashville university, with a no-sale stipulation, by artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

Bacigalupi noted that Crystal Bridges had already begun building bridges towards future colleagues by lending its masterpieces to other museums, including the painting below that I recently viewed in the newly reinstalled permanent-collection (aside from Alice’s loan) galleries for American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City:

Cropsey, “Backwoods of America,” 1858, Crystal Bridges Museum (better image here)

But loans alone can’t undo the bad impression left when Walton cloaked herself as a champion of donor intent, while helping other institutions to violate it.

When I asked how he would overcome the misgivings of some professional colleagues, Bacigalupi acknowledged that eventual membership in the Association of Art Museum Directors was his goal and said that he would work towards that through “relationship-building and reputation-building,” developed through “collegial and collaborative programs.”

There’s one other parallel between Bacigalupi’s current gig at the Toledo Museum and what he will experience at Crystal Bridges (aside from the similar circumstances of their founding): At both places, his responsibilities include(d) major construction projects. His experience overseeing Toledo’s three-year-old SANAA-designed Glass Pavilion was not all smooth sailing, however.

Here’s what he said about Toledo’s new, completely transparent wing at a recent panel discussion (moderated by the estimable Steve Litt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer) of four Ohio art museum directors (including another now about to flee the state, Timothy Rub), discussing Ohio Arts—State of the State’s Art Museums (broadcast June 25 on WVIZ-TV):

Don B.:
All of our planning had to be adjusted, both because of the external
economic situations and also learning to live in a new building

Steve Litt: We’re talking about budget cuts, voluntary salary cuts and layoffs?

Don B.: All of the above.
All of our pro forma plans for how that buildng would operate both
programaticaly and and financially—how expensive it would be to
run—were wrong. And so we had to learn to actually live in the
building. I think buildings develop a life of their own as they emerge
as part of your program. I think this year is the first year we got it
right….It takes some time. All the best planning that we put into it
was not the reality.

Crystal Bridges’ best planning for its construction is also not going as expected. Bacigalupi acknowledged that the museum would not open next year, as had been anticipated, and that no date had yet been set.

If you want to hear more from Don, here’s the full (almost hour-long) Ohio public television show with three other Ohio directors (also including, beside Rub, Sherri Geldin of the Wexner Center, Columbus; Mitchell Kahan of the Akron Art Museum).

That’s Bacigalupi you’re seeing, in the image below:

an ArtsJournal blog