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New Yorker Corker: “Crystal Bridges Has Earned the Respect of the Museum Establishment”

Yesterday was a banner day for the Walton clan. The family business, Wal-Mart, had a huge win when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a huge class-action suit on behalf of female employees who had claimed discrimination on both pay and promotions.

In less momentous news (unless you’re an art enthusiast), Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, scheduled to open on Nov. 11 in Bentonville, AR, got good press in a long New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead (posted online yesterday, printed on paper in the June 27 issue).

I’ve already shown you “Stella” the pig. Here’s another sculpture on the Crystal Bridges trail, whcih figures in Mead’s piece:

Dan Ostermiller, “Shore Lunch,” 1999
“We hope children will crawl all over him,” Alice told the New Yorker.

Like Carol Vogel, Mead (who was on the same Bentonville, AR, press tour that I attended last month) got a chance to interview the founder. But unless Carol has a more detailed piece still in the works, it appears that Rebecca did a much better job (which a lot higher word-count to work with) in getting an in-depth look at how and why Alice collects and what her goals have been in envisioning Crystal Bridges.

Crystal Bridges’ construction site, photographed last month

That said, there are plenty of perplexing holes in Mead’s account. A cavity as big as the construction site is this unsupported (and debatable) assertion:

Walton has earned the respect of the museum establishment.

There’s no doubt that this self-designated museum leader desires artworld approval. Her loans of art to museums around the country (while her own project is still in process) have garnered gratitude and goodwill from the recipients. But the only comment Mead adduces to support her blanket assertion about “respect” is this equivocal assessment by the Metropolitan Museum’s former director, Philippe de Montebello:

I suspect it is going to be a substantial and fine collection of American art.

Although the Walton family business, source of the museum’s funds, has just won a major verdict, the jury is still out on the question of how Alice will be judged by the museum establishment.

In addition to de Montebello, perhaps Mead should have touched base with American paintings scholar Carrie Rebora Barratt, currently the Met’s associate director for collections and administration, who felt aggrieved by Alice’s controversial 2005 purchase of the New York Public Library’s “Kindred Spirits” by artist Asher B. Durand. While I suspect that Barratt, in her current position, would be circumspect in discussing Crystal Bridges, her frustration with that transaction was strongly expressed when I interviewed her for the article I did on the “Kindred Spirits” kerfuffle in the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s what I wrote:

Among those blindsided was Carrie Rebora Barratt, the Met’s curator of American paintings and sculpture, who, after lending her expertise to the library’s collection-assessment project, had at least expected “someone at the library to say, ‘We’re doing this. Are you interested in these pictures?'” She had clearly understood, while advising the library, that it was thinking of selling its “most valuable works. I feel terrible. I wish there was something I could have done.”

Or maybe Mead should have contacted the likes of Jan Muhlert, director of Penn State University’s Palmer Museum and (when I spoke to her) a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ Committee on College and University Museums.

In another WSJ article on the “Walton Effect,” in which Muhlert and I discussed Walton’s proposed purchase of a half-share of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection for $30 million, I wrote:

Ms. Muhlert expressed disapproval that “any of our colleagues would take advantage” of a museum’s selling for purposes other than “replenishing the collection.” [Fisk wants to apply proceeds to fund operations and defray debt.]

In Mead’s article, Walton argues “briskly” that Crystal Bridges had no effect in spurring sales by “institutions [that] were going to sell because they needed the money. They are there to fulfill a mission, and that is not to keep ‘Kindred Spirits’ two stories up, in a narrow hallway.”

Actually, “Kindred Spirits” was one of many artworks displayed not in a vestibule but in the library’s spacious Salomon Room, which, according to the library’s own website, “was originally designed by architects Carrere & Hastings as a 19th-century picture gallery.” That gallery contained other major works, in addition to “Kindred Spirits,” from which Walton bought a Copley and a Stuart (and possibly other paintings) at a Sotheby’s public auction occurring just months after the Durand disposal. (In 2009, the Salomon Room was converted into a wireless Internet reading room.)

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington (Constable-Hamilton Portrait),” 1797
Sold by
the NY Public Library to the collection of Crystal Bridges (Sotheby’s, Nov. 30, 2005) for $8.14 million, then a record for an American portrait at auction

There was much else that the New Yorker’s fabled fact-checkers missed in Mead’s manuscript. For example, here‘s what Don Bacigalupi, now Crystal Bridges’ director, himself had said in 2009 about what Mead now calls “the successful construction,” under his directorial oversight, of the Toledo Museum’s 2006 SANAA-designed Glass Pavilion:

All of our pro forma plans for how that buildng would operate, both
programatically 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 [three years after opening] 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.

What’s most surprising is that Mead and her magazine’s fact-checkers let Walton get away with denying that a 2005 Arkansas law “was designed to benefit solely her museum.” It exempted “a qualified museum” from paying the state’s 6% sales tax, allowing Crystal Bridges to acquire its expensive art trove without paying that tax.

Here‘s the relevant passage from the law (see #28 on the last page):

Sales tax exemption for purchases by a “Qualified Museum” for construction, repair, expansion, or operation. A “Qualified Museum” must have a collection with a value greater than $100,000,000 in an Arkansas facility prior to January 1, 2013. The aggregate costs of construction and acquisition must exceed $30 million. —Act 1865 of 2005

If either Mead or Walton is aware of any other Arkansas museum that willl own a collection valued at more than $100 million before Jan. 1, 2013, we’d sure like to know about it.

The next landmark in the lead-up to the opening of Crystal Bridges will occur on July 4th weekend, when the museum will erect tents in Downtown Bentonville to sign up inaugural members. July 4 was also to have been the day for a “major announcement” by the museum about non-Walton donors who had pledged to significantly supplement the founder’s outlay.

But Sandy Edwards, Crystal Bridges’ deputy director for museum relations, now tells me:

We have taken another direction and will only be launching the membership campaign that evening at 5 p.m. on the Square. When it got down to operationalizing the event (a fair on the Square with a lot of excitement and little chance of quieting the public to hear important announcements), we simply decided it was more effective to focus on the single message of membership in that environment. We are now in the process of identifying dates between now and the opening for the other announcements.

Ozarks Unbound reports:

Membership incentives for the museum’s “Original Members” (which
encompasses the first 3,000 commitments regardless of donor level)
include an invitation to a member preview event just prior to the
opening and a special membership card featuring Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits”
[emphasis added]. Additionally, members will enjoy special level-specific experience
benefits, such as exhibition previews, complimentary publications,
conversations with curators and directors, as well as private tours.

No word yet on what these different levels of membership will cost, and whether the benefits will include free admission. Edwards merely told me, “We have not announced the admission fee.”

That seems to suggest that there will, in fact, be one.

an ArtsJournal blog