Art Bridges’ Art Populism

Left: In Exaltation of Flowers: Clivia, Fuchsia, Hilium, Henryi, ca. 1910-1913, by Edward Jean Steichen. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas. (Art Bridges)
Right: Amethyst Woodstar, ca. 1863-1864, by Martin Johnson Heade. Oil on canvas. (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., 2006.84. Photography by Dwight Primiano)
Alice Walton’s foundation helps rural, small-town museums share in big-city riches.

Art Bridges is the new foundation established by Alice Walton in 2017 “to focus on sharing outstanding works of American art across the country.” I admire her. A few years ago, she established the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. Starting a new museum from scratch takes passion, vision, good sense, and lots of money, and now she’s building a foundation to help other museums. She’s got good taste, too. Good taste and big money are, to paraphrase our local bard Robert Frost, the two roads in the whole wide world most likely to diverge.

She’s a patriot. It’s difficult to raise money to support American art scholarship. Shows of historic American work — art before 1945 — are the hardest to promote. It doesn’t have the warm patina of Old Master art, the pastel colors of impressionism, or the snap, crackle, and pop of contemporary art. Today, the teaching of American history is worthy of a class-action malpractice suit, and that affects the audience for American art in our colleges, the marketplace of collectors, and museums. Walton respects and values our heritage.

“Outstanding works are in museum vaults and private collections,” she writes. “Let’s make that art available to everyone.” Hallelujah. I’ve written many times about the obligation big museums have to share the wealth. Channeling my inner Huey Long, I think it’s a shame that established big-city museums in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia sit on thousands of objects they don’t have room to display, or interest in using. It’s high-class hoarding.

Art Bridges is only two years old. It’s an emerging organization and linked to the bigger Crystal Bridges Museum enterprise, itself only a few years old. It’s focusing on museums outside the big cities, some rural, some in small cities, with annual budgets of less than $5 million a year. Walton puts her money where her mouth is. Art Bridges has net assets, according to its 2018 IRS filing, of $190 million.

Helping these museums is so important. There’s so much creativity in these places, and so much local pride in them. A few weeks ago, Art Bridges appointed Paul Provost as the new CEO. He’s an experienced curator — he led the American department at Christie’s. He’s savvy and intellectually sound. He’s a fantastic choice. Margi Conrads is the Arts Bridges curator. She’s a great curator. One of the best shows I’ve seen was her reinterpretation of the Nelson-Atkins’s superb American collection in Kansas City.

Arts Bridges is an incubator. It’s doing a show called “Cross Pollination” with the Thomas Cole National Historical Site and Olana, Frederic Church’s estate, both in upstate New York. They’re two of my favorite places. The Cole site — his home and studio — has just been restored. Olana, one of the great Hudson River estates, has a brilliant new curator. Art Bridges is helping these two superb but offbeat places to develop a new show connecting Martin Johnson Heade’s gemlike paintings of hummingbirds and work by Cole and Church with art and science today. It’s going to Crystal Bridges, Olana, the Cummer in Jacksonville, Fla., and Reynolda House in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Cross Pollination is a show with heft. It puts Olana and the Cole site in the scholarly spotlight, where they should be. The Cummer is a lovely museum and garden. Reynolda House is the very good art museum at Wake Forest University. I imagine Art Bridges put its money and prestige to good use in getting all the museums and their very fine curators talking and thinking.

It also helped the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando and the Orlando Museum of Art do what I think will be a beautiful Edward Steichen show called “In Exaltation of Flowers.” It’s anchored by a set of Steichen murals — his paintings are magical — owned by Art Bridges, which also has a collection. The two museums, with Art Bridges’ guidance, borrowed Steichen photographs to create, together with the murals, a beguiling show on 1920s art. What Alfred Stieglitz was to grit, Steichen was to evanescence.

In Exaltation of Flowers: Clivia, Fuchsia, Hilium, Henryi, ca. 1910–13, by Edward Jean Steichen. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas. (Art Bridges)

These are two small museums in a place not known for art. I believe I might be the only person who has visited both but never made it to Disney World. Steichen, at the crossroads of the art nouveau and arts-and-crafts movements, is the antidote to bumper cars and water slides.

Art Bridges is something else that’s exceptional. It’s a teacher. It’s mentoring small museums that have little experience with traveling loan exhibitions. I was a curator and a museum director for years but always worked at places with scholarly history, money, a good library, and clout. I kept my elbow sharpener handy at all times, too.

That said, I found that lots of small places simply didn’t know what doing a good loan show takes. Sometimes the curators were creative but timid. Sometimes the registrars were nyet-spewing old trouts. Art Bridges has its own great curators who do what they call “professional development” with small museum partners as they navigate what could be an intimidating process. The foundation opens doors, giving these places access to the big museums. Art Bridges is, in effect, an ambassador. The big city slickers are sometimes snobs — yes, there are snobs in the art world — and sometimes don’t give the small places a fair shake.

Art Bridges is a networker, too. Arts Bridges and the Terra Foundation in Chicago are together funding a brilliant new six-year initiative establishing partnerships between big-city museums on the one hand and small museums in places I wouldn’t call remote or out-of-the-way since they’re all in very fine places. Rather, I’ll call them “far from the madding crowd.” You can’t go wrong invoking Thomas Hardy.

This was a very smart move on the part of Art Bridges. It was barely a year old and wanted to make an impact. So, in the spirit of collaboration, it worked with Terra, an established foundation also supporting American projects. I’ll write about the Terra Foundation soon.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for instance, is developing shows with the Fenimore in Cooperstown, N.Y., the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn., and the Munson-Williams-Proctor in Utica, N.Y. I’ll definitely see the Elihu Vedder show in Utica. His work is bizarre and intriguing. It’s a brave show since he’s a difficult artist. Art Bridges is supporting it, but, more precisely, its support is essential in making the show happen. One of the big problems I have with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is that they support projects that are going to happen with or without federal money.

The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863, by Elihu Vedder (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will share art with a group of small museums in Pennsylvania, as will the Detroit Institute of Art in Michigan. The Museum of Fine Arts’ collaboration is the most appealing to me since it involves some meaty new shows. The Philadelphia museum seems to be lending a handful of things I wouldn’t call extraordinary to each of its sister museums for short durations. It could do a lot more — I don’t think it will miss these things — but it’s an auspicious start. Detroit is sending a treasures show, a nice one but nothing that sounds intellectually challenging. It’s collection-sharing, though, and I hope this starts a free flow of art from Detroit to the many good, small places in Michigan, and back. These small places always have quality art, too, though the collections tend to be idiosyncratic.

These big museums are tax-exempt. They don’t pay federal, state, or local taxes. They’ve built collections and big endowments through years of tax-exempt philanthropy. Taxpayers “far from the madding crowd” subsidize them. Though Arts Bridges and Terra are financially supporting their new collegiality, I feel they have an obligation to their smaller, less well-fixed museums.

I would push the concept — and reality — of collaboration further. New England has dozens of small museums with immense American art riches. Among them are the Addison Gallery, where I was director, the college art museums at Smith, Amherst, Williams, Rhode Island School of Design, Mount Holyoke, and, of course, Yale and Harvard, and small civic museums like the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Currier in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Clark, and the Bennington Museum. There are many others.

New England is a special case, and I’m not speaking merely as a lifelong Yankee. Yes, we’re special, in part because there are more silos per square mile than anyplace on earth. Intellectual silos, not corn silos. For many reasons, there’s also lots of good art tucked in college museums, small city museums, historical societies, house museums, and, of course, the big places like the MFA, the Peabody Essex Museum, Worcester, and the Wadsworth Atheneum.

These museums should be swapping art routinely, using the enormous, varied collective to stimulate ideas, conversations, long-term loans, and shows. Transportation costs are cheap. The curators and directors know one another. Art Bridges can get the concept of frequent, deep collaboration going and grease the mechanism with money to cover insurance costs, catalogues, research, or transportation. Curators and directors with initiative and imagination will jump. The lazy will snooze. Rewards to the entrepreneurial will be obvious.

Art Bridges has a robust regimen of exhibition evaluation. This sounds good. After all, what’s wrong with evaluating museum shows? Plenty. The fresh-looking, clipboard-clutching innocents interviewing museum visitors don’t realize what a nefarious mission they’ve been enlisted to advance.

The “surveys” they take are never big enough to mean anything. Each visitor gets something different — and something deliciously indescribable — from a work of art, or a group of works in a show. A good show will provoke people to think long after they’ve left the clutches of the data-gatherers. A big part of a great show is the scholarly catalogue, which lasts long after the show closes. No one knows how many people use these books.

These surveys are misused by marketing people and museum staff who teach children. They often — not always — brandish these evaluations to drain content of acuity, quirkiness, complexity, and spice. They’ll always find someone who’s easily offended or confused or naturally dense. Years ago, a new finance director at a museum where I was a young curator wanted us to call visitors our “customers.” That’s the ethos behind exhibition evaluation. It’s to be deplored. Museums are for teaching and learning and pushing people aesthetically and intellectually. They’re not stores.

Art Bridges is great news for the beleaguered field of American art. Of course, the NEA should have shown this kind of leadership years ago.

Next week, I’ll write about a new Winslow Homer show at the Fogg Art Museum.


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