Don Bacigalupi, the director of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, is just back from the Musee du Louvre in Paris, where he introduced the museum’s collection to a French audience attending a seminar on the birth of American landscape painting.
The seminar opened “New Frontier: Thomas Cole and the Birth of Landscape Painting in America,” a small exhibit of six paintings, four by Thomas Cole, one by Asher Durand and another by Frenchman Pierre-Antoine Patel the Younger.
I talked to Bacigalupi this morning about the show, a collaboration with the Terra Foundation in Chicago and the High Museum in Atlanta as well as the Louvre and CBM, and its reception in Paris. Bacigalupi said the French, who didn’t regard American art as having an identity until 1945 and the birth of abstract expressionism, are now wondering if they were about 100 years too late to recognize the quality of American art.
The Louvre, with its astonishing compilation of works art from around the world, has snubbed L’etats Unis, with only four paintings by American painters in its holdings. One of them is Cole’s “The Cross in the Wilderness.” That work was joined by Cole’s “The Good Shepherd” from Crystal Bridges, his “Landscape with Figures: A Scene from ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ ” from the Terra Foundation, and his “The Tempest” from the High. The High also contributed Durand's "View Near Rutland Vermont." “The Summer,” painted in 1699 by Patel the Younger, was from the collection of the Louvre. The six will be on exhibit at Crystal Bridges May 12-Aug. 13.
“Several of the French speakers said that before the show opened, ‘We would have said American art is second tier.' " They won’t say that anymore,” Bacigalupi said.
The audience was curious about why so many museums — like CBM and the Metropolitan, with its new American wing — are focusing on American art. Bacigalupi said heightened interest in American art could be a 10-year delayed response to 911.
The seminar attendees also asked about the future of collecting American art. “To their detriment,” Bacigalupi said, those who want to collect now are “coming very late to the party.” It's a party CBM wants to keep going, of course.
The Terra Foundation no longer operates exhibit space but travels its collection, and Bacigalupi said CBM expects to collaborate with the foundation to show some of its work that complements Crystal Bridges’ collection.
Bacigalupi also talked about the American response to Crystal Bridges, which he called “amazing beyond anyone’s expectations.” There have been more than 130,000 visits to the museum — 3,000 just yesterday, on a Monday — and he’s seeing that visitors' experience is “one of deep engagement.” People want more details — on the labels, on the audio tours, from the docents. “It’s shocking in a way,” he said. “That’s not the experience of most museums.”
The director said the museum will continue to install sculpture on the grounds — like Deborah Butterfield's sculpture "Redstick" — and tweak what’s hanging on the walls. The exhibit “Wonder World,” a show of contemporary art which runs through April in the temporary gallery space, will be replaced in May with Hudson River school masterworks from the New York Historical Society.