Set deep in the woods of Bentonville, Arkansas, the new Crystal Bridges Museum opened on November 11 to hordes of eager families. Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the museum is a fluid blend of copper and glass, allowing the natural surroundings to permeate the interior, and surround the 440 works of American art on display. Yet despite such an idyllic description, all anyone seems to focus on is the source of the museum’s funding — as heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, Alice Walton founded the museum on her own art collection, acquiring the rest of the catalog with her family’s millions.
To many art critics, Alice Walton is viewed as an underhanded tyrant, squirreling away art in the middle of nowhere. “Think of how the owners of the great collections in Europe and England must have felt at the beginning of the 20th century, when a lot of their art was coming into this country,” said David M. Sokol, art history professor emeritus of the University of Chicago. Regardless of the controversy, the excitement in the air is undeniable when strolling through the galleries. Many of the patrons walking into the museum have never been inside a contemporary structure, let alone had access to such major works of art. My 2-year-old niece and I discussed — or rather, babbled — the finer points of Roy Lichtenstein and John Singer Sargent. For a toddler who lives in Arkansas, such early exposure to direct art experience is a rarity.
Having visited the museum and grown up in the area, I feel personally invested; I can’t help but think if the museum were located in a major urban area, critics wouldn’t be raising such a stink. Already the town has seen growth because of Crystal Bridges — the local airport is expanding, and boutique hotels and restaurants are appearing all over Bentonville. Sling arrows all you want at Walton for her background, but many of the works she purchased came from private collections, and would’ve otherwise remained hidden from the public if not for her intervention. Criticize the museum’s unseemly wealth, but realize that, unlike so many large urban institutions that charge upwards of $25 a person, Crystal Bridges is free. Whether or not we all agree with the financial underpinnings of the museum, Crystal Bridges reminds the world of one major thing: art should not be a privilege reserved for urbanites or tourists who can afford a trip to the MoMA.