Kevin Murphy‘s lament, posted last week on CultureGrrl, about his disheartening curatorial experience at Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR, struck a responsive chord with the museum’s founding curator, Chris Crosman. Titled “chief curator” for most of the six years that he worked on the museum’s development, Crosman left Crystal Bridges less than two months after its November 2011 opening.
Below is his own perspective, emailed to me this weekend, on the accomplishments and shortcomings of his former institution. ” His candid comments are followed by an update from the museum’s spokesperson on the current status of its staffing and programs.
Kevin Murphy’s take on the exhibition program at Crystal Bridges reflects his own scholarship and it was for this reason that he was a perfect fit for the museum. Unlike many much more established museums, Crystal Bridges had quietly put together a very respectable research library and ties with the University of Arkansas were also being strengthened, in a joint effort to introduce American art history to the community. An emphasis on scholarship is also reflected in the scholar-in-residence program funded by Tyson Foods.
Exhibition planning was central to Crystal Bridges from the very beginning and part of that was to recruit the best and brightest curatorial talent. Without the benefit of a seasoned curatorial team, it was clear that initially the early exhibition programs would necessarily consist of “package” shows from other museums, with an eye toward exhibitions that would place the collection in wider or different contexts. For example, the Norman Rockwell exhibition was booked largely because the museum had acquired Rockwell’s iconic “Rosie the Riveter.”
But popular shows were to be balanced by substantive exhibitions like Angels & Tomboys, which Kevin and I both fought to have placed on the calendar along with another smaller exhibition of painting by Richard Caton Woodville that would have placed our “War News from Mexico” in perspective. [I discussed the tangled ownership history of that painting, here.]
Among other factors we weighed was the need to “prime the pump” with accessible shows in a location without much in the way of visual arts programming. Missteps were inevitable—the [William S.] Paley Collection show [from the Museum of Modern Art] made no sense unless it could be presented in a way that compared European to American modernism.
In the end a “greatest hits” mentality prevailed. But generally speaking, we initially attempted to build an exhibition calendar that would balance a populist show with something more challenging or simply unexpected—like a change-up pitch in baseball–including contemporary art.
An interest in contemporary art, pre-dated Kevin’s arrival and Don’s directorship. It was a key part of the strategic plan that contemporary art would engage younger audiences who need to see themselves reflected in the mix of artistic programming. The original notion, which I believe still makes sense, was to look for recent art and artists that would resonate with the historical collection. Nature was a big part of that—“Kindred Spirits” [the Asher B. Durand painting whose much criticized disposal by the New York Public Library I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal] was literally a theme that could tie the Hudson River School to artists like James Turrell and Roxy Paine and made so much sense in terms of the setting, architecture and the collection as it had evolved to that point.
Somewhere along the line, that focus was subsumed in a general, pervasive emphasis on contemporary art as the engine driving the museum—a significant shift that disappointed and distracted Kevin (and myself). I would only disagree with his assessment of Northwest Arkansas as the curatorial equivalent of Afghanistan. It is a part of the country that has its own cultural richness (aside from Silver Dollar City) and a cosmopolitan atmosphere derived from natives and transplants alike.
But I do understand that Bentonville’s location and its isolation from peer institutions exacerbates the difficulty for collegial exchange that has become increasingly important in the museum world. New leadership will hopefully entice other Kevins to Crystal Bridges in due course.
The collection is too good not to have the best and brightest looking after it.
On the plus side, Diane Carroll, the museum’s director of communications, sent me this information, in response to my queries about recent developments. (Links and any information in brackets are my own inserts.):
“We just celebrated our third anniversary on Nov. 11, and have welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors in that three-year period. Our school field trip program has ramped up, with more than 74,000 students visiting to date and gearing toward 50,000 students per year. Our 2015 exhibition schedule was recently released as well.”
Carroll acknowledged that the museum is “continuing to build [or, more precisely, rebuild] our curatorial team, recruiting all levels including the positions posted [my link, not hers] and an ongoing search for director of curatorial [formerly David Houston]. We currently have three curators: Manuela Well-Off-Man [assistant curator until last July], Chad Alligood [who came on board to assist in organizing the current State of the Art contemporary art survey, under the auspices of president Don Bacigalupi, himself departing in January], and Mindy Besaw [arriving this fall, having previously been curator at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Whitney Western Art Museum, Cody, Wyoming].”
There is no active search for a new president, Carroll told me. Rod Bigelow, the museum’s former deputy director for operations and administration (who lacks an art history background) continues to serve as executive director.
Perhaps reflecting the museum’s curatorial deficit, five of its six upcoming exhibitions are being organized by outside institutions. The exception is: “Game Fishes of the United States,” displaying the color plates from the 19th-century book of that name, a copy of which owned by Crystal Bridges. Its chromolithographs, as described in the exhibition’s online listing, are “based on the original watercolor paintings by well-known sporting artist Samuel Kilbourne….This classic collection elegantly conveys the drama of sport fishing and highlights the exploration and celebration of nature in American art—one of the major themes in Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection.”
I also asked Carroll if there was any truth to rumors that Alice Walton and/or her museum had accquired works from the recent big contemporary auctions in New York, such as Jasper Johns‘ “Flag.” Her reply: “I don’t have any information at this time.”
CLARIFICATION of a previous post:
I had described Don Bacigalupi as Crystal Bridges “founding director.” He was director when the museum opened to the public, but the founding director was Bob Workman, who, as Crosman noted, was “executive director for the selection of the architect, groundbreaking for the building, hiring many key staff members who are still involved, and any number of the museum’s most important acquisitions. He gets very little credit, but without his leadership it is doubtful the museum would have gotten off the ground.”