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Crystal Bridges Shake-Up: What Is Alice Walton Thinking?

Alice Walton, speaking in Bentonville, AR

Alice Walton, speaking in Bentonville, AR

What’s going on between the lines and behind the scenes of the recent surprising news about the regime change at Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR?

The answers could prove telling for the future of a still nascent institution that’s trying to find its way and play in the big leagues, with the help of munificent financial support from its founder, Alice Walton.

The turnover of the curatorial staff during the 15 months since Crystal Bridges opened bespeaks an institution that may be too unstable to attract and keep the best curatorial talent or to plan for ambitious future exhibitions (which require long leads times and need curatorial consistency).

In what sounded to me like the kiss of death, Walton said this (in last week’s press release) about Don Bacigalupi‘s reassignment (characterized as a promotion) from the directorship of the museum to a seat on the museum’s board and the newly created position of president. (My own comments are in brackets.)

Don was the right director at the right time. [Is this no longer "the right time" for Don?] The success we have enjoyed during the course of the past three years has been directly attributable to his leadership—in getting the building open and creating a successful inaugural year, surpassing all expectations.

As important, he has created a first-rate and highly effective leadership team [the key curatorial players of which have now left the building], prepared to advance Crystal Bridges’ strategic plan and keep the momentum going into our second year of operation and beyond. In his new role, he is poised to take us to even greater accomplishments.

Where have the departed members of the “highly effective leadership team” landed?

Laura Jacobs, the museum’s director of communications, told me this:

I wish I could say definitively what Chris [Crosman, founding curator] and Matt [Dawson, deputy director for art and education, who will not be replaced] are up to. I did see on Twitter that Matt was speaking at an annual symposium titled “Building Museums.” He returned to Toronto, closer to family, and I had heard that Chris returned to Maine.

Crosman, who wrote the “Introduction to the Collection” for Crystal Bridges’ 2011 collections catalogue, is indeed back in Maine (where he had directed the Farnsworth Museum). Regarding his departure from Crystal Bridges, not long after it opened, he told me recently that he had joined the museum’s staff on Jan. 1, 2006 “to help build the museum and function as the chief curator—a position I always assumed would continue long after the museum opening. Apparently not.”

He said he is now, “like every other out-of-work curator/director, an ‘Independent Curator.’ I am currently working on a focused exhibition of large-scale paintings, smaller oils and studies and selected works on paper by Neil Welliver that is being organized by the Kemper Art Museum in Kansas City, as well as continuing on the Board of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art and a few small writing projects for Phil Alexandre‘s eponymous gallery.”

The professional destination of the third member of the team to leave, chief curator David Houston, was announced last month by Crystal Bridges. He is now executive director of the newly created Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University, Columbus, GA.

And what of the highest-ranking member of the curatorial team who (at this writing) still remains on staff?

CrysMurph

Kevin Murphy
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Crystal Bridges curator of American art, Kevin Murphy (the star of this CultureGrrl Video, shot during my visit to the museum), was blissfully far away from Bentonville when the details of the management “realignment” hit the news. His Twitter feed placed him in both Paris and London, revealing him to be an avid balletomane and a follower of my @CultureGrrl tweets about what was going on at his home institution.

He retweeted this tweet in which I reported on the departure of Houston and ended my 140 characters with the words, “What gives?”

He’ll be overseeing the installation of the museum’s Norman Rockwell exhibition (organized by the Rockwell  Museum, Stockbridge, MA), which opens at Crystal Bridges next month. Murphy tweeted this image of the show’s in-preparation gallery:

CBRockwell

The most troubling part of the museum’s new administrative structure is that the work of the curatorial staff will now be overseen by an executive director lacking a significant background in art:

Ron Bigelow

Rod Bigelow

When I asked Diane Carroll, the museum’s director of media relations, about this, she mentioned Rod Bigelow‘s stints at the Tacoma Art Museum (as chief financial officer and interim executive director) and at the Toledo Museum (interim executive director, after Bacigalupi left to direct Crystal Bridges, and chief operating officer before that). She also assured me that “Bacigalupi will continue to play an active role in exhibitions and acquisitions.”

According to Bacigalupi (as quoted in the above-linked press release), his new assignment involves “implementation of our strategic plan, which is full of exciting initiatives that will further position Crystal Bridges as a catalyst in the world discussion about American art.”

What those “exciting initiatives” consist of is nowhere mentioned in the press release. Here’s what Jacobs told me, when I asked her for further details:

One of our strategic initiatives calls for deepening our ability to engage audiences and to convert them into repeat visitors to both our physical and digital locations. We’re exploring how to do that, but ideally, want to meet people where they are and provide them with enriching educational (and even entertaining) experiences to connect with art. Don will be responsible for developing global initiatives, and we hope to be able to share more about that very soon.

A current “global initiative” is the much touted (but relatively modest in ambition) four-year collaboration among the Louvre; the High Museum, Atlanta; the Terra Foundation for American Art and Crystal Bridges. Each participant lends one or two works to a small focus show that circulates among the three museums. The first show, with six works, was devoted to landscape painting; the second, five works, to genre painting.

What’s been lacking, so far, is a plan for the kind of ambitious exhibitions, organized in-house, that could engage and challenge the talents of serious curators on staff. (I had heard that Bacigalupi, a contemporary art specialist, might have been organizing a biennial-type show, which has not been announced.)

It’s early days for this institution, and a robust professional plan may yet develop. But the questions raised by the latest personnel shifts may make it harder to lure culturally sophisticated cosmopolites to work in Bentonville, and, perhaps, also harder to keep a certain globe-trotting balletomane (who was formerly associate curator at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA) on Alice’s home team.

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