No Place like Home

By Velasco, David | Artforum International, March 2012 | Go to article overview

No Place like Home


Velasco, David, Artforum International


"BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS is a city in Northwest Arkansas, and county seat of Benton County, Arkansas, United States. The population was 35,301 at the 2010 census. It is part of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO Metropolitan Statistical Area. Bentonville is also home to the Wal-Mart Home Offices, headquarters of Walmart Stores, the largest private employer and retailer in the world."

The succinct, just-the-facts style of Wikipcdia goes a lot further in fixing the surfaces of Bentonville than any lyric acrobatics might. A location scout would have trouble picking the town out of a lineup; put simply, it lacks the texture of the specific. It could be anywhere and everywhere--it is a murmur in the great cacophony of murmurs evoked by the phrase small-town America. And it is precisely Bentonville's anywhere status that made it the perfect test site for one of the shrewdest, most carnivorous mercantile models on the planet, a big-box commercial strategy that translates everywhere.

It is here that Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the third-richest woman in the world, decided to sow specificity. Suddenly, Bentonville is somewhere; it is a destination.

Crystal Bridges: The name is both quaint and fantastical, in the manner of a Stevie Nicks song. Even within the already ludicrous, shiny, and fanciful history of institutions born from singular visions and deep pockets, there's something crazily quixotic about Alice Walton's ludicrous, shiny, and fanciful new museum. It is something Walt Disney might have hallucinated while visiting Isabella Stewart Gardner's ersatz Renaissance palace in Boston.

At once hubristic and grounded, the two-hundred-thousand-square-foot museum (fifty thousand square feet for gallery space), designed by the Haifa, Israel-born, Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, is a harmonious compound of eight linked concrete pavilions--several striated with bands of inlaid wood and canopied with glass and copper--nestled by Crystal Spring amid 120 acres of forest near Bentonville's downtown. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is absurdly well positioned in the competition for global muscological resources. Endowed by the Walton Family Foundation with eight hundred million dollars (more than New York's Museum of Modern Art), it opened on November 11 of last year with a party in Bentonville, where Bill Clinton addressed the crowds via video while confetti cannons blitzed the air with paper.

The museum's "simple but vital purpose," the inaugural catalogue explains, "is to tell the unfolding story of the United States through the lens of its visual arts." Lenses beget more lenses. "We're not here to rewrite the book," David Houston, the museum's chief curator, assured me. "But the view of American art will look different from Arkansas than it does from New York or Los Angeles."

So far it doesn't look that different, but one gets Houston's drift, and certainly the installation of these works in the piedmont of the Ozarks stages its own phenomenological environment--a "place-based sensibility," as the museum's director, Don Bacigalupi, put it--almost regardless of what's on view. Walton largely culled the collection of some twelve hundred works herself, in conversation with a few advisers, so it's no surprise that the assemblage occasionally reads as the harvest of an eclectic but assured connoisseur. It might be a surprise that a lot of the work is very, very good. As has been widely reported, there are "genuine" masterworks in the inaugural exhibition, "Celebrating the American Spirit." These are some great paintings. But great paintings only tell so much of the story of American art.

The story thus far, in any case, is provisional; this is a "first pass," a single presentation of more than four hundred works from the nascent collection (evolving is the buzzword). Currently, its strengths are colonial portraiture and paintings of the Hudson River School along with strong groupings of individual artists such as Marsden Hartley, George Bellows, and Stuart Davis. …

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