Crystal Bridges Collection Takes Turn Toward the Modern

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jul. 12, 2010 12:00 am  

The announcement that Bentonville would be the site of a Walton family-founded art museum coincided with the May 2005 announcement that Alice Walton had bought Asher B. Durand's painting "Kindred Spirits" for a reported $35 million-plus.

In the ensuing months and years, the outline of the collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art began to take shape: Winslow Homer's "Spring," Charles Willson Peale's "George Washington," Thomas Moran's "Autumn Landscape."

As the museum itself began to take shape, the acquisition announcements started coming regularly. And while the pieces were all masterworks - some even iconic - they tended toward the traditional. That wasn't a surprise. John Wilmerding, the art expert who has been advising Alice Walton for the last six years, had said in 2005 that the collection would encompass the Colonial period to the early American modern period, roughly mid-20th century.

That began to change in the last year, however, as Crystal Bridges began to release the titles of later, edgier, even disturbing acquisitions, pieces like Walton Ford's "The Island," described as "a writhing pyramidal mass of Tasmanian wolves (thylacines) grappling with each other and a few doomed lambs," a 2009 creation. Or Wayne Thiebaud's "Supine Woman," "a psychologically ambiguous portrait of a tense, prone woman," painted in 1963.

Wilmerding, who now sits on the museum's board, and Don Bacigalupi, who took over as museum director in October, said the evolution of the collection had evolved along with Alice Walton's interests. As her interests have expanded, so has the vision for the museum.

In the last year, Wilmerding said, Walton has "moved much more actively in collecting contemporary and modern art. And I think that's a very important development."

Bacigalupi, who came to Crystal Bridges from the Toledo Museum of Art, agreed that the museum lately had been more focused on collecting 20th and 21st century pieces.

The mission remains the same: to relate the history of American art.

America is, as countries go, relatively young, but the history of its art is rich and the museum's collection is vast and of outstanding quality, Wilmerding and Bacigalupi said. Only perhaps 10 percent of its acquisitions have been announced, Bacigalupi said.

Bacigalupi, interviewed in late June after returning from the yearly contemporary art show in Basel, Switzerland, perhaps the world's most prestigious, sat in an office in a nondescript one-story, strip-mall-style building in the museum's temporary quarters in Beau Terre Office Park in Bentonville.

"When the museum project was conceived and begun, the areas that were probably most foundational and most important to acquire were those 18th and 19th century early American iconic works," he said. "We're very serious about American history."

But the museum's definition of history has grown to include the present. "Obviously, history's moving forward, and we continue to pay attention to what's happening in American art today," Bacigalupi said.



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