What’s the Deal with Crystal Bridges?

Crystal Bridges model

The Crystal Bridges Museum, slated for completion in September, will house Wal-Mart Heiress Alice Walton‘s growing collection of American Art. Designed by Moshe Safdie, who is perhaps best known for Habitat ’67, the museum will feature galleries spanning a man-built lake fed by the nearby Crystal Spring. So far, it looks pretty cool.

But what of the collection itself? Carol Vogel recently met with the notoriously private Walton for The New York Times and writes:

Ms. Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, turned to buying art specifically for the museum in 2005, resulting in a years-long spending spree that has made her a recognized force in the art market. She has been one of those mysterious anonymous buyers at auctions and at galleries who often pay top dollar and has spent many tens of millions of dollars on works like Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from 1797 ($8.1 million), Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” from 1849 ($35 million) and Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Rosie the Riveter” ($4.9 million).

But fave culture blogger Lee Rosenbaum had a delightfully snarky (yet well-informed) response to Vogel’s article:

Unless Vogel managed to get a good look at the full scope of the collection (trust me, I asked for that when I was there!), she has no way of knowing whether Walton has managed to achieve her improbable goal of swiftly assembling a world-class collection in a mere five to six years. (The Metropolitan Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Art Institute of Chicago, to name three of the great American art collections, had more than a century’s head start.)

As Vogel noted (and as I was also told by the museum’s curators), it wasn’t until 2005 that Alice began collecting with the museum in mind. Her holdings before that were, for the most part, of less importance, as I was informed during my visit.

That recent conversion to serious collecting is part of what makes the first paragraph of Vogel’s article so eyebrow-raising: The other great museum founders whom she placed in the same league with Walton had put the horse before the cart: They were already voracious acquirers of great things before they envisioned creating a facility to institutionalize their collecting achievements and share them with the public.

Crystal Bridges will rise or fall on its collection. No amount of grandiose architecture and daring feats of engineering (for both the museum facility and the landscape) can trump the as-yet-unknown depth, breadth and quality of the collection.

Can hardly wait for the September reviews! Museummonger would go to the opening herself if only Arkansas wasn’t so far away and our travel budget wasn’t non-existent. le sigh


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