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Crystal Bridges: a New Home to American Art

The Crystal Bridges Museum opened last week in Bentonville, Ark. The building was designed by Moshe Safdie, and the collection was amassed by Alice Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune. Earlier this week, I talked on the phone with David Houston, director of the curatorial department, about the museum and its collection:

Learn more about the museum and see some of the work displayed there in this slide show:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The Crystal Bridges Museum has just opened in Bentonville, Arkansas. The building was designed by Moshe Safdie, and the collection was amassed by Alice Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune. We’re talking on the phone from the museum with David Houston. He’s the director of the curatorial department. Welcome to you.

DAVID HOUSTON: Thank you. A pleasure to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this got a lot of attention, of course, partly because of the sponsorship of Alice Walton, but talk about it as a curator. This is sort of creating a museum out of something that just didn’t exit, right?

DAVID HOUSTON: Well, this is true. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to be involved with a new institution on this scale, and in fact it’s the largest museum dedicated to American art that’s opened in the last 50 years. And we’re kind of situated in a moment where American art is coming in to its own with the new wing at the MFA in Boston, with the renovation of the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, the opening of Crystal Bridges and then the opening of the renovated wing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alice Walton has been collecting this over many years. You told me you came in 10 months ago or so. What do you do to sort of decide how to exhibit the work?

DAVID HOUSTON: We have a tutorial team of five people, and each have our own area of expertise. And we’ve had vigorous debates over the past 10 months as to how to organize the collection, how to split it from building to building — our building is a series of interconnected pavilions — and one of the things we really looked to was our audience. Unlike an institution in New York City or Washington, D.C., we are in an area of the country that is really underserved by cultural institutions, so we know that many of our visitors will be first-time museum goers. So the collection was organized chronologically so that when you are walking through the museum, you are also walking through time and you see the history of America unfold with its leaps and bounds and problems and extraordinary moments. But the goal was to really be clear and to make people feel like there were multiple points of entries and hopefully they saw something of themselves in their world in the art that we have here.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s interesting. You, yourself have worked in places of more traditional art centers, I guess, you really think differently about the audience here and who is coming to the museum.

DAVID HOUSTON: You can’t assume that people are just encoded with what a museum is, its purpose and the rest of it. It’s a novel experience for a lot of people, and what we’ve learned already just in the few days we’ve been open is that we have an audience that’s hungry for knowledge and hungry to learn. And what they do is they come in the door and they look at every painting and they read every label and often, unlike the traditional museum experience where they just spend a few seconds in front of a painting, people are spending several minutes, and that turns their visit into often a three- and four-hour experience rather than the quick trot through, like you often get. So this learning curve for our audience has influenced the way that we’ve organized and interpreted the artwork, knowing that we need to give them some extra handles and some extra ways to get into the collection.

JEFFREY BROWN: This, of course, was part of the wonder and skepticism from some about having the museum where it is. Is it a new audience? Who is that’s coming in?

DAVID HOUSTON: Right now we have multiple audiences and that will change its demographic over time. Initially we have people from all over the world, especially all over the United States from the traditional art centers Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York City and Washington coming to see the collection, because there is a lot of interest about many of the pieces that we have. There has been a lot of speculation any time there is a key piece of American art sold. People assume that it’s coming here. But we have over 5,000 members, and for this demographic it’s the highest per capita membership of any museum in the United States. And this all happened very, very rapidly and that shows us that there is a tremendous amount of local interest, but we also have members from over 30 states and as far away as Australia. But initially we knew that the local population has a great sense of pride and a great sense of curiosity and that our interpretation, our layout and our audio guide needs to embrace the range from the novice to the cultural sophisticate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mention the sense from people from all around the country have this notion that anything that’s for sale in American art might be going to your museum. That’s after many years of seeing just that happen, which caused some skepticism or I guess worries in the art world didn’t it? Where does that stand now?

DAVID HOUSTON: A great deal of that initial response had to do with the unknown and we really didn’t reveal a lot of works that were in the collection until the grand opening and now we’re an open book. You can come and see the majority of the collection hanging on the walls and really analyze where things started, how things are moving and realize that a lot of those concerns were misfounded. And there has been some consternation of artwork leaving metropolitan areas and coming to Arkansas, but I think to a person, people see the scope of the project of how things fit together, but most importantly how this is truly a gift to this part of the world where nothing like this has existed before, and through our loan policies, scholarship and programming how indeed this is a gift to all of America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally, does it add up to a kind of coherent portrait of American art, if you will, or is that what you are planning to unfold as curators over the years through various exhibitions?

DAVID HOUSTON: As curators our charge is to put together and organize a survey of American art from the colonial period to the present, and to do that starting in the 21st century is a very ambitious project. I think my colleagues have done an excellent job of putting together a line through, but as a work in progress it really has strengths and it really has areas that are thinner than others. The great body of the collection is roughly from 1860 to 1920 where the core began, and as it grew both ways in the direction of the colonial period and the 20th century and contemporary art it has highs and lows. One of the things we’ve done is to identify what those things are for us, and some of those we will address through bringing in traveling exhibitions that both reinforce our strengths and also take some of the thinner points and bring in work from other museums that we do not have in the collection.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. David Houston of the new Crystal Bridges Museum. Thanks for talking with us.

DAVID HOUSTON: Thank you very much for calling.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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