Art, big business, and small towns: Taking notes on reactions to Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum

When I tell people I just moved here from Arkansas, the revelation is usually met with a buttoned-up nod, a bemused smile, or at best a comment you’d give a runner-up at a regional beauty contest, complimenting her quaint charm and pleasant curves. That’s okay. I get it. It’s hard to dismiss the state’s unflattering reputation. We call progress moving from 8th to 9th most obese state, and such statistics are often followed with “Thank God for Mississippi.” Much-loved governor and popular president, Bill Clinton seems to credit his hometown with little more than an artery-clogging diet. Unrequited love is a bitch, especially when your pool of celebrated native sons is abysmally shallow.  And it happens to Arkansas quite often, as she frequently croons the praises of any successful individual whose swam in her rivers or eaten her BBQ.

In the grand scheme of national sins, my former home has committed some of the worst. Forty-some years ago, the country watched as Governor Faubus defied presidential orders to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. While the east and west coasts saw civil rights marches, this same segregationist governor gave Arkansas a hill-billy themed park, Dogpatch which was located eerily close to KKK headquarters in Harrison, AR.  Although moonshine and overalls may no longer be the backdrop of a popular tourist destination, I can assure you that the backwoods weirdness lives on. I kid you not, as we drove our U-haul into Central Arkansas, I spied: a man clad in head-to camouflage eating popcorn from a bucket as he watched traffic whiz by, a mobile home-cum-tourist shop with a hand-painted sign advertising “Rocks n’ Quilts,” and at least half a dozen red-lettered REPENT! signs.

Mammy Yokum, a character from Dogpatch, poses with visitors

So when the northwest corner of the state, previously known only as Wal-Mart headquarters, made Travel & Leisure’s Top 12 List for “Hottest Destinations” last month, eyebrows were raised. You see, Bentonville, AR now has a world-class art museum– within a five-mile radius of the Wal-mart Visitors Welcome Center. Not only is the art world supposed to pay attention to small-town Redneck-ville, but the whole endeavor is funded by Wal-Mart heiress, Alice Walton.  While art may bring us together, nothing unites Americans more than Wal-Mart loathing. Now, to be clear, I hate Wal-Mart for all the same reasons everyone else does—for its God-awful design from building to baubles, its wrinkled produce, its abysmal treatment of employees, and let alone its impact on small local businesses.  However, if most of us are honest, and forgive me if I’m presuming too much, I think much of our disdain for this mega-retailer stems not from our outrage that its employees are paid too little or that they sell cheap crap from China. Target sells cheap Chinese imports and pays their workers similarly. Target crap just isn’t so damn tacky. The truth is, Wal-Mart has become a symbol of all that is devoid of taste, and those who shop there are easy targets. (You’ve seen the website.)  The real sting of its boorishness is that throughout economic ups and downs, it has succeeded.

So it’s no surprise that the highbrow art world responded to the news of this museum, Crystal Bridges, whose name could be a destination in a Madeleine L’Engle novel or a psychedelic ballad, with a slurry of criticism. The bulk of the criticism is not aimed at the collection itself which reads as a sort of highlight reel from a survey course in American Art History 101 with smatterings of contemporary goodies. Most concede that the work is well-curated, some going so far as to compare its cultural heft to the Gugenheim in Bilboa.  Instead, critics focus on the uneasy ties to corporate identity, the means of acquisition, and the inappropriateness of the new location of some of the work. While some of these criticisms are valid, there are some underlying assumptions and accusations that deeply trouble me.

nighttime view of Crystal Bridges Museum, designed by architect Moshe Safdie

In his article titled Wal-Mart Heiress’ Museum a Moral Blight, Bloomberg columnist, Jeffrey Goldberg finds irony in the collection’s numerous paintings that “celebrate an American landscape [now] systematically disfigured by thousands of hangar-sized warehouses built without a passing thought to beauty.”    In a follow-up article, Goldberg called the entire endeavor “Alice Walton’s vanity project.”

Goldberg seems to accuse Walton of hypocrisy in her attempt to depict an American identity or story through her collection. What right, Goldberg seems to demand, does a woman from the lineage that brought us such eyesores and inequity have to be a herald of culture?

To be fair, Alice Walton and her private money that paid for the museum are not involved in the corporate business of Wal-Mart, yet many have a hard time disassociating her family’s business from the actual artwork. Art and business have long been strange bedfellows, harkening back to the Medici’s golden rule on Italian culture.  The list goes on in recent American history: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, Bill Gates. So why is Alice Walton such an easy target?

Then there’s the kafuffle over choice works that opponents seem to think Walton snatched like a greedy pig snorting up prized pearls. One transaction in particular upset certain culture barons:  the acquisition of Asher Durand’s 1849 painting, Kindred Spirits, a quintessential example of Hudson River School landscapes and prized possession of cash-strapped New York Public Library. When the library made the motion to sell, they gave preference to New York institutions. Only fitting, of course.  The Metropolitan Museum, also seeing lean times, banded together with the National Gallery in D.C. to save the work from the unseemly clutches of Walton and her backwoods gallery.

Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits

Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times compared New York’s loss of the painting to the destruction of the iconic Penn Station. I guess if you’re lucky enough to be in New York, work that isn’t in your backyard may as well be destroyed. The reaction of these institutions seems to go beyond championing local interest to blacklisting less sophisticated geographies.

In an attack on Walton’s methods of acquisition, ArtNews columnist Patricia Failing commented:

The “national identity” Walton began to take on after acquiring Kindred Spirits was not, in fact, that of a developer creating a transformative museum but that of a poacher preying on cash-strapped institutions by offering record prices for locally significant treasures.

If institutions saw Walton as a poacher, they had every right to offer the work to a friendlier face.  Furthermore, if all artwork was returned to its “locally significant” home, the walls of our country’s major museums would be stripped bare. What these critics seem to be implying is that these cultural landmarks don’t belong in the hands of rogue collectors or small-town, Wal-Mart shopping folk.

Which brings me to Michigan. I find the need to defend Arkansas as the perfect place for a beautiful museum, in part, because I find that similar ghosts also haunt West Michigan. Our region may not be to blame for a monstrosity like Wal-Mart, but it’s no stranger to land-locked culture and big business-sponsored art. Arkansas’ unique traits that make her a more-than-deserving home for renowned art are some of the same I’ve found in West Michigan. Namely, a lack of pretense, a loyalty of place, and a fierce determination to disprove its nay-sayers lays the bedrock for cultural institutions and attitudes that have staying power. In defense of Crystal Bridge’s location and Southern culture, Oxford American publisher Warwick Sabin claims that “Southerners experience and perpetuate their culture in ways that most of us take for granted, because it is a part of our day-to-day existence.” Perhaps, if Michiganders could embrace that identity as every-day culture-makers,  the often necessary ties to business and corporations wouldn’t seem so threatening.

by Tori Pelz
One Response to “Art, big business, and small towns: Taking notes on reactions to Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum”
  1. I don’t mean to defend Alice Walton’s actions but I do have to say that seedy aquisitions and deacquisitions happen even within our most valued institutions.

    Collector’s such as Walton can choose to lock up these works in their monolithic homes but choose to instead put them in the public domain – she deserves a little credit for that.
    What is unfortunately is that we end up in a society where the super rich get to determine culture, but that’s an entirely different topic.

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