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.
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.
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.
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.