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Crystal Bridges, Like the Barnes, Is Documentary Fodder — But For PBS?

How did The Art of Crystal Bridges, a documentary about the founding of Alice Walton’s museum, get made? A recent email from the museum, the monthly roster of news and upcoming programs there, piqued my interest, because how many museums merit their own film? The listing, which advertised the public premier of the film at Crystal Bridges on Nov. 9, didn’t say anything about the film’s origins. But it did say the film was “sponsored by J.P. Morgan.” Intriguing.

I searched and discovered that the film had been shown earlier this month at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which billed it this way:

…This half-hour documentary written and produced by Emmy-award winning documentarian Larry Foley tells the fascinating story behind the museum”s founding and development. Featuring glorious high definition imagery, narration by Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, and an original music score by James Greeson, The Art of Crystal Bridges takes viewers on a visual journey “from construction to completion” of the first major museum devoted to American artwork to open in half a century.

It had to be an inside job. And it was. Laura Jacobs, the museum’s communications director, told me that the museum had commissioned it and sought a sponsor. The Nov. 9 showing there will mark the one-year anniversary of the museum’s opening. The film itself, which includes interviews with museum curators and designers, as well as architect Moshe Safdie and founder Alice Walton, is for sale in Crystal Bridges store and, says Jacobs, “we will show it on a continuous loop on 11/11/12, our anniversary, in the Great Hall.”

After that, she said:

The film will air on AETN  (Arkansas Educational Television Network, the state PBS affiliate), twice in November (15 and 21) and the filmmaker is shooting for a PBS broadcast as well.

Would that be possible? Would PBS really show an inhouse film like this? The answer may be yes. Earlier this year, a film about the Barnes Foundation aired on PBS. It was made by WHYY in Philadelphia and was sponsored by Wilmington Trust. It’s described this way on the WHYY website:

WHYY’s special 60-minute TV documentary on the Barnes Foundation for the new PBS Arts Summer Festival series tells the story of Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his noteworthy, priceless art collection, considered among the world’s greatest, and detail [sic] the design and construction of the new Barnes building in Center City Philadelphia.

The film follows the story about Dr. Barnes and the unique period in art history in which he lived and collected via a focus on a few key pieces in his collection. By showcasing those pieces, the philosophy behind Dr. Barnes’ collection and his methods of displaying works in ensembles will be explored. The Barnes Collection also features digital animation, which takes viewers from Merion through the architect’s drawings to the Parkway location.

I tuned in (though you can watch the whole thing for yourself at that link above), and I was appalled. In nearly 60 min., it made no mention of the controversy surrounding that move. It completely pulls the rug out from under the pro-NEW Barnes* critics that complain that The Art of the Steal was biased against the move. At least that movie tried to get interviews from both sides.

PBS, which famously airs no commercials, managed to air a 60-minute one that time.

I suspect it will have more trouble airing The Art of Crystal Bridges — but not because of content or who exerted editorial control. The difficulty may be with the length. PBS likes schedule national programs that fill an hour, not a half-hour.

I haven’t watched the Crystal Bridges documentary, so I am making no judgment here about its merits. Its behavior is perfectly understandable. But if PBS airs this documentary, without explaining its origins, then I do have problems with PBS.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Crystal Bridges

*Please see comment below, after which I added the word NEW.



  1. Pleased to see you discuss the Barnes film produced by WHYY/PBS. The presenting sponsor was Wilmington Trust; however, production was underwritten by Comcast/NBC Universal. Comast CEO is Brian Roberts, husband of Aileen Kennedy Roberts,a Barnes Foundation trustee.

    BTW, when you worte “It completely pulls the rug out from under the pro-Barnes critics that complain that “The Art of the Steal” was biased against the move.” I assume you mean the pro-Barnes MOVE critics.

    The Philadelphia NPR affiliate WHYY has many connections to the Barnes movers including Pew Charitable Trusts, Annenberg Foundation, the two main funders of Barnes legal fees that secured the move and the move itself. When PBS joined them on this film project, however, it exposed the national network to justified criticism — but yours is the first thing I’ve seen about it. It is worth noting that the PBS ombudsman wrote about the complete absence of the Barnes controversy from PBS. Here’s a link:

  2. As always, a super blog Judith. I hope I’m just one of many thousands who read you beyond the shores of the USA. I have to say, regarding PBS, that the prospect of me sellling my art shows to American TV is worse than virtually any other country. I can get my films shown in Afghanistan more easily. The last approach we had from PBS was to request two of our Tim Marlow shows but ‘we can’t pay for them – you can sell the slot before and after the show ends’. You can imagine what the implication of that kind of policy is: far fewer films will be available to a PBS audience and it’s far more likely that those films that do get offered are those that have been funded already by the organisations (such as a particular gallery or museum) themselves. Sadly, it’s not entirely PBS’s fault….a public service broadcaster should be seen as an essential part of a country’s culture and not, as it seems in some quarters, a left-leaning drain of much-needed national resources. This is a desperately difficult time for arts film-makers – not that we’ll ever give up.

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