This weekend I took the boys to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to catch the Norman Rockwell exhibit that closed yesterday. If you don’t live in Arkansas, and you don’t follow art news closely, you may not know that Alice Walton, whose father founded Walmart, has built a major museum of American art in Bentonville, where Walmart is headquartered.
I don’t think you have to live in Arkansas, or follow art news at all, to appreciate that this is something of an epic cultural juxtaposition. And a brilliant one. I have been to art museums all over, and I have never seen such a demographic mash-up corralled by velvet ropes.
Bentonville is a corporate principality that warrants a whole separate post (to come), but it is deep in the heart of rural America. I despise “people of Walmart” snobbery, so I hope this doesn’t come across as patronizing, but the people watching at Crystal Bridges could be its own permanent exhibit. There were the usual museum patrons: suburban day trippers like me, international tourists, serious art students and connoisseurs. But there were also lots of country people, in crisp denim and suspenders, buzz-cut little boys, “Sunday best” dresses, and even an Amish bonnet or two. All converging over art.
It made me happy. Like this sign:
Oh, yeah, and the art! The Rockwell exhibit (no photographs allowed) and the permanent collection are both amazing. We were each provided with silver iPods that were loaded with an audio tour that could be followed in order, or called up by a numerical code posted next to each piece of art. I turned the big boys loose, and the Littlest Who and I stayed together to follow along with the child-friendly version of the tour.
I learned a lot that I never knew about Norman Rockwell. I always thought of his work as very idealistic and aspirational, which it was, but I didn’t realize how deeply his later work was informed by the civil rights movement, and that some of it was very controversial.
The boys had been to Crystal Bridges last year with Patrick, and were anxious to show me through the permanent collection. It’s quite amazing to see what has been acquired and curated in a few short years. It reminds me of a story about another Arkansas scion, Winthrop Rockefeller, who wanted to know how long it would take to clear a piece of property he was developing, and was told it would take twelve days with a tractor. Rockefeller, so the story goes, said, “let’s do it in one day with twelve tractors.” Or something like that.
Alice Walton must have a lot of tractors.
She’s used them to create a space that is truly extraordinary. Here’s something else I’ve never seen in an art museum:
It’s confusing to me when people and places and art won’t stay in their boxes.
I like it.