Visiting the Southern Relatives: A New Safdie Museum Opens in Arkansas

View across the water from the restaurant

The newly opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, designed by the Skirball’s architect, Moshe Safdie, has made big news in the art world. Here’s a photo I took when my family and I visited earlier this year. Pictured is the museum’s “gallery bridge” as seen from inside the “dining bridge.”

On a recent trip to visit my husband’s family in northwest Arkansas (my annual pilgrimage to the South, which a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey like me approaches with a healthy mix of excitement and Woody Allen-esque trepidation), I got a chance to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. I’d visited the site a year ago, when only the shapes of the museum’s future buildings were visible from a viewing platform in the forest. Now, after five years of planning and construction, the new museum—which opened in November of last year—is revealing itself to be unique in design and mission, but similar to the Skirball in some very significant ways.

Legend (and New Yorker reporting) has it that Alice Walton, Walmart heiress and lifelong art collector who founded and funded the museum, came to the Skirball (incognito at first, or so another version of the story goes) a few years ago when considering architects for her new museum. She visited the Getty Center and other significant buildings designed by working architects in Los Angeles, but came away from L.A. feeling that she’d found her man in the Skirball’s Moshe Safdie. Something about Safdie’s emphasis on built environments that encourage gathering, his signature commingling of structure with the natural environment, and the light and openness of the Skirball’s spaces seemed to Ms. Walton the ideal architectural point of view to take to house her burgeoning collection of American art.

Skirball Architecture

The Skirball’s main courtyard, which shows that we’re right to describe our site (as we often do) as “nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains.” Photo by Timothy Hursley.

Museum view from entrance

Crystal Bridges, located on property long-held by the Walton family, as seen from the entrance.

Crystal Bridges, like the Skirball, is built to harmonize with its natural setting. In the case of the Skirball, the Santa Monica Mountains serve as our backyard. For Crystal Bridges, the museum is literally in a creek, in the middle of the woods: the water that flows through two ponds at the center of the facility comes from nearby Crystal Spring.

In some ways, Crystal Bridges seemed to me to be the Skirball’s younger sister. The Safdie trademarks are all there: the horizontal banding (this time made from wood instead of the pink granite that adorns the Skirball exteriors), the circular buildings, the amphitheaters, the glass.

Looks familiar

If you’ve ever stood in the arroyo garden right outside our Noah’s Ark at the Skirball galleries, this view of a bridge connecting two Crystal Bridges galleries may look familiar.

Window Hallway

Lots of glass walls at Crystal Bridges, too. Visitors there, like visitors to the Skirball, have plenty of opportunity to experience the natural surroundings even while inside the buildings.

Interior courtyard

Both the Skirball and Crystal Bridges offer many good spots for people to meet and hang out. Here’s a Crystal Bridges courtyard. Its walls seem very Skirball to me, but the floor design definitely sets it apart.

But the design, like the southern setting, is markedly different from the Skirball. Instead of concrete and steel roofs, the tops of the main buildings at Crystal Bridges are made of copper, giving them a shimmery glow in the shining sun. And the buildings themselves are engineered like actual bridges: the support beams are held in place by steel cables and anchored to enormous pylons at the bottom of the reflecting pools. It’s quite something.

Museum on a creek

In my mind, the copper rooftops at Crystal Bridges look at bit like Noah’s arks floating atop Crystal Spring. (Apparently Noah’s arks are on my mind even when I’m traveling!) Some of the copper is already starting to patina.

Entrance to Restaurant

Yellow pine roof beams are a prominent element in the design. Here’s a long shot of the restaurant, cleverly called Eleven after the museum’s November 11, 2011 opening. The line of people on the right is for the entryway coffee bar. Yum!

Reflecting Room

As you exit one gallery and move to the next, there are “reflecting rooms” where you can sit in comfy chairs, read books, or appreciate the view of the water.

Love These Outdoor Chairs

Love these outdoor chairs and benches. Very groovy.

The idea of bringing a comprehensive American art museum to Arkansas is exciting to me, given that in that part of the state, one would have to drive hours before reaching the nearest art museum. It was apparent from the crowds visiting when I was there that the excitement of having a brand new cultural landmark has struck the region like a fever. The opportunity to see Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, or an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Dolly Parton is something that would not have been thought possible five years ago for the area’s residents. As an educator, I was also happy to learn from Nikki Stewart, the museum’s Director of Education, that Walmart is supporting visitor admission for the next five years (Correction: General admission will be free to the public “in perpetuity.” See comment below for details.) and have put $10 million towards bus scholarships and lunch vouchers for thousands of schoolchildren. There’s another thing that our institutions have in common: an emphasis on education and support for local schools.

The art and museum worlds are reacting with a mix of excitement and guarded praise for Crystal Bridges, and I think the conversations about both its relevance and its influence will continue for years to come. What occurred to me as I walked the galleries and looked at a hillside of oaks and hawthorne trees is whether the museum will fit as seamlessly into its largely rural community as it does into its surroundings. At the Skirball, we work hard to involve our visitors and our neighbors in the ongoing conversation about what it means to be Jewish, to be American, to have agency in matters of community—and we do this using the arts as a vehicle, not as a means in and of themselves. I look forward to seeing how Crystal Bridges uses its collection of fine art to engage its visitors over time. Building a spectacular new building is just the start of the journey, one that I hope to follow on my yearly treks down South.

Posted in Around Campus, Design, Museum, Recommendations and tagged , , , .

About Jason Porter

A former classroom teacher, Jason Porter is currently the Skirball’s Associate Director of Education. Over the course of his teaching career, he served as a department chair, an administrator, a dean, and for one ridiculous semester, the biology teacher. Outside of his work in education, he is a published writer, parent, husband, cyclist, tennis player, soccer dad, and a collector of antique lunch boxes from the 1970s and 1980s (with thermoses only). He hates downhill skiing and the Eagles.

2 thoughts on “Visiting the Southern Relatives: A New Safdie Museum Opens in Arkansas

  1. Thanks for the great blog post! I do want to clarify, that Walmart’s gift to our endowment will sponsor general admission to Crystal Bridges in perpetuity. I’m so glad you had a good trip visiting your “cousin” down South!

  2. That is great! Thanks for letting us know, Laura. Hope you and your colleagues from Crystal Bridges have a chance to visit your “cousin” out West!

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