Crystal Bridges, Alice Walton, and the Occupy Movement

Crystal Bridges; Mike Pirnique, InArkansas.com

As the 11-11-11 opening date for The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art approaches, many high-profile articles on the site and its guiding spirit, Walmart heiress Alice Walton, have begun to appear across the airwaves and the internet. 

Just this morning Elizabeth Blair reported on NPR about the museum and its relationship with its local cultural and natural environment. As has happened across much of the media coverage, Ms. Blair’s otherwise excellent overview characterizes the Bentonville area as being small-town, though the region’s statistics suggest otherwise; please see Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster’s previous piece on “Art & Identity In a Not-So Rural Corner of Arkansas” for a deeper discussion of Bentonville and Walmart’s place in this expanding corner of the state. 

Across Ms. Blair’s piece, as well as Martha Teichner’s feature from CBS Sunday Morning below, Crystal Bridge’s rhetoric on the synthesis of art, architecture, and nature is taken at face value – with no consideration of how rural culture (let alone Ozark culture) comes to inform the space. Ms. Teichner’s piece is a success in many other ways — as it humanizes a figure vilified by certain segments of the art world — even suggesting, if we read between the lines, a kind of rural-urban narrative within the reactions to an Major American Museum built in the Ozarks. However, the emphasis on “nature” over local culture allows for another piece of reporting on Crystal Bridges that offers the Museum as a pastoral retreat. Ultimately, this does a disservice to Ms. Walton’s vision, and to the more engaging discussions that could emerge from such journalism. 

[Unfortunately, CBS disables the YouTube embedding for Sunday Morning; please follow this link to view the 9 minute feature.]

Both of these pieces do succeed in suggesting that the story of Crystal Brides is complicated –  and that a knee-jerk reaction against the museum or its founder misses the unmissable fact: that most major art museums, art institutions, and, indeed the art world itself, is motivated in large part by the largesse of such individuals and their corporate partners. While many citizens might criticize Corporate America’s business practices, they gladly partake in the latest Impressionism exhibit. 
Such interconnectedness suggests the argument the Occupy movement has not yet made forcefully enough to its followers: that they are implicated in the very structures they critique. (For instance, the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr page displays the extent to which the movement is energized by frustrated arts and humanities graduates.) A self-examination of where the 99% and the 1% might converge, or at least have shared values or interests, could do profound good for the cultural and political atmosphere in this country – much more so than Guy Fawkes masks on one side and the cartoonish reporting of Fox News on the other.
I find it interesting that this weekend the media will provide dispatches both from the opening of Crystal Bridges and from a new weekend of Occupy events across the country. As these demonstrators begin to feel the effects of winter, as their figures march across the screen, we will also be presented with images of the stunning architecture of Crystal Bridges – a museum set in one of the most caricatured and misunderstood regions of America. Both of these stories suggest that our easiest and most impassioned arguments may not, in the end, bring us any closer to understanding what we might learn, and what we might have in common.