Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in 2011 in Wal-Mart’s hometown, Bentonville, Ark., with a respectable collection of work by famous artists from Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” to a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
But the museum has just opened a massive exhibition of contemporary art called “State of the Art” that could be a game-changer. The museum is sometimes mocked by critics from outside the region for its location and Wal-Mart connections – its permanent collection was funded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton – but the new show represents a serious effort to introduce contemporary art to a mainstream audience far from the rarefied galleries of hipster neighborhoods and urban centers.
“State of the Art” showcases more than 200 works by 102 artists from around the country. All the works were created since 2011, and the show resulted from a 100,000-mile road trip by museum president Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood to discover under-recognized artists.
“Crystal Bridges has already established itself with a major national presence due to the quality of its collection of American art from colonial times to the present day,” said Alligood in an interview. “What ‘State of the Art’ does is extend that story. Many of our audience members come from around here. For many of them, this is their first time having an experience in an art museum. We’re introducing contemporary art to this audience.”
The works are engaging, surprising and memorable. They include “Lowrider Pinata,” a life-size car made from colorful pinata-style paper and cardboard, by Justin Favela; Delita Martin’s “The Dream Keeper,” which brings elements of magical realism to a portrait of a black figure in work clothes, a bird perched on one hand; and Alberto Aguilar’s “Sensitive Equipment,” which invites visitors to hit a balloon back and forth using melodic hand-bells as bats.
Susie J. Lee’s silent video portraits of the faces of workingmen, called “Fracking Fields,” offer mesmerizing close-ups of faces in real time as their emotions wordlessly register. John Salvest stacked secondhand romance novels so that the book bindings, organized by color, spell out “FOREVER” in giant letters. “Ghosts of Consumption,” by Pam Longobardi, features manmade debris from the ocean. Jeila Gueramian’s textile piece, “It’s You,” creates a ceiling of colorful crocheted blankets. And the show opens with the “Mom Booth,” by Andy Ducett, in which real moms who are local volunteers sit at a table wearing aprons, knitting and dispensing hugs and advice.
Reviews of the show have been mixed. The Wall Street Journal called it “PG-13,” suggesting that it’s so accessible, it rules out art with provocative themes. Blair Schulman, a Kansas City-based art critic who contributes to the Huffington Post Blog, said he “loved” the works but took issue with “how it was curated. It was a lot of good work in a very large space. … If they broke it into smaller exhibitions over a few years, it would have better represented what the artists were making.”
But Alligood says Crystal Bridges “didn’t create this show for critics. We expressly went into this project to shake up the paradigm of contemporary art – that it’s somehow not of the realm of everyday experience, that it’s inaccessible or disengaged from our lives or that it’s inexplicable. In fact, artists across this country are engaged in conversations in ways that welcome the viewer in.”
Admission to Crystal Bridges is free, and the museum is drawing more than 500,000 visitors a year, 60 percent from Arkansas. At the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, 30 miles away, art department chairwoman Jeannie Hulen says the museum has “changed our students’ lives. It’s completely changed the way we teach. It has upped the game and given them a wider, more worldly view of what art is.”
As for “State of the Art,” she says, “It’s a positive show, it’s a very optimistic show, it’s a big show. It’s important for them being a new museum to be thinking about contemporary art. It is accessible, but there is a conversation about accessibility that’s happening in the art world now, that art is not just for artists, it’s not just for the elite. It’s for people.”
The curators, she said, “chose artists that want the viewer to leave with something they could understand. I don’t think that’s wrong.”