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Flight from Bentonville, Part I: Ex-Crystal Bridges Curator Kevin Murphy on Why He Left

Part II is here.

With the planned departure of Crystal Bridges president (and former director) Don Bacigalupi, Crystal Bridges Museum will have lost the entire senior curatorial staff that opened it just three years ago.

The others are curatorial director David Houston, deputy director Matt Dawson, American art curator Kevin Murphy

L to R: David Houston, Matt Dawson and Kevin Murphy, Crystal Bridges senior curatorial staffers at the time of its 2011 opening Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R: David Houston, Matt Dawson and Kevin Murphy, Crystal Bridges senior curatorial staffers at the time of its 2011 opening
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and founding curator Chris Crosman:

Chris Crosman at Crystal Bridges in 2011 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Chris Crosman at Crystal Bridges in 2011
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Murphy was last to leave, taking a position in September 2013 as American art curator at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).

As it happened, I chatted with Murphy soon after he arrived in Williamstown, while I was working on this Wall Street Journal article about the Kiefer installation at MASS MoCA. And I had another occasion to visit WCMA last June, while working on my WSJ review of the Clark Art Institute’s expansion. I took a break from that assignment to take in Murphy’s provocative Material Friction show, which juxtaposed folk art with “mainstream” art. (I’m stumped for an appropriate adjective for “non-folk” art. Maybe that’s because it’s a false dichotomy.)

Left to right, works by Samuel Joseph Brown, Samuel Miller, Mary Cassatt Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Left to right, works by Samuel Joseph Brown, Samuel Miller and Mary Cassatt
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A remixed version of the “Material Friction” objects, organized by undergraduate and graduate students under Murphy’s guidance, is now on display at WCMA (to Jan. 25).

In a university setting, Murphy now has the chance to devise the intellectually stimulating exhibitions that mostly eluded him at Crystal Bridges. In light of the latest developments at Crystal Bridges, his candid, on-the-record comments to me when we met last year (which I haven’t previously found an occasion to share with you) seem freshly relevant.

Describing Northwest Arkansas, tongue-in-cheek, as “the Afghanistan of curatorial posts,” Murphy told me he was “still recovering from the post-traumatic stress of that place” and confessed that “it was hard for me, after two and a half years, to acclimate to living in Fayetteville, AR” (a town near Crystal Bridges). As I previously reported, I had once asked one of the other now departed senior staff members how he would manage to find cultural sustenance beyond the walls of his own museum. He mentioned (in all seriousness) the possibility of getting on airplanes.

Below are excerpts from Murphy’s critique, more in sorrow than anger, of his Bentonville sojourn. (The links are mine, not his.)

It was an amazing experience—being able to help build the collection, install it and shape how people in Arkansas, many of whom hadn’t experienced a big museum, were going to experience a narrative of American art that went from the 18th century through contemporary.

But I sensed the focus of Crystal Bridges was changing to being much more  contemporary exhibition projects. The museum feels that it has a Bilbao Effect. But I was getting a sense that in order to maintain that Bilbao Effect, it was going to be contemporary art that was going to do it.

I wasn’t going to be able to do an 18th-century exhibition, because that would have been too boring. I think the management of Crystal Bridges felt, “Who would come and see that?” It had to be Rockwell—some big, light show.

You would get a sense, trying to do an exhibition on certain objects in the permanent collection that I was interested in, that people thought, “Who’s going to come and see that? That’s not going to get people from Branson to come on a bus.”

There was a lot of handwringing over Angels and Tomboys [a 19th-century show organized by the Newark Museum], because I think people felt, “Who’s going to come?” And indeed, there were fewer. There is a lot of handwringing right now about how the first exhibition partnership with Fisk [the Stieglitz Collection]—if that’s going to be a driver.

I would be at meetings and I would hear about Silver Dollar City [a theme park], which is a really big attraction in Branson [MO], and how they market themselves, as though that was equal to what a museum should market itself as. You would be speechless. There was a feeling that the in-depth scholarly thing wouldn’t reach people. And I always disagreed with that.

There was a corporate mentality. Projects were done in a very accelerated way and cost-effectively. I think all of us on the curatorial and education side would have loved to have had time to do extended labels for every object in the Fisk exhibition and time to do a lot more interpretation. These are objects that aren’t necessarily self-apparent to someone who doesn’t know about American Modernism. But that exhibition was fast-tracked.

By about the time I left, you were going to a going-away party about every week, for a variety of levels of staff: from managerial on down.

I felt very strongly about Crystal Bridges and I saw it veering from the path that I understood that it wanted to be on when I was hired, which was that it would become a prominent national institution that reached out to a very diverse community of people, but that was also very much in conversation with peer institutions across the country, doing forward-thinking scholarship in American art and interpretation on all levels, from high-level academic to reaching out to schoolchildren.

When I critiqued things, it was because I took it viscerally. I really wished the best for them.

And I tried.

More from Murphy on this, here.

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