The press, the mayor of Bentonville, the director of state Parks and Tourism and his tourism director, academic folk — all the important people of the world — were sitting on the edge of their chairs last week at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art site expecting to hear Don Bacigalupi announce the date the museum will finally open. That, they thought, was the reason they were there, with a peek at the progress of the museum Alice Walton is building and filling, as the backdrop.
But Bacigalupi surprised everyone by saying he couldn't announce the date just yet. Soon, he said.
Nevertheless, the museum's "Sneak Peek" event offered a jaw-dropping view of Alice Walton's colossal art project. That the museum has already been six years in construction gives some idea of the immensity of the project. Once envisioned as a museum with 100,000-plus square feet of public space, Crystal Bridges has grown to 217,000-plus square feet. That includes architect Moshe Safdie's arcing, bridge-connected buildings housing five permanent galleries, the glass-fronted three-story library, administration and temporary gallery building, and a glass-enclosed gathering space for 300 people (dubbed "the turtle" for its roof shape), all built around two ponds to be fed by Crystal Creek (which was dry last week, but one wouldn't put it past Walton to pump a little water in). The woods surrounding the whole will be laced with three miles of interconnecting hiking and biking trails.
In a quick interview after the announcements, Bacigalupi, who Walton hired last year as director, talked about Walton's embrace of later contemporary art (much of which is large). Bacigalupi's hand can be seen in Walton's evolution; since he came on board, Crystal Bridges has announced acquisitions of works by startling racially provocative silhouette artist Kara Walker; fantasy realists Tom Uttech and Walton Ford, glass artist Karen LaMonte and installation artist Devorah Sperber and other living artists. Bacigalupi's focus is as much on what the museum can do for art education as on the collection: He said artists "articulate important topics" for the public; he hopes Crystal Bridges will have a statewide effect on how art is taught and thought about and will make clear its ability to promote creative thinking in all areas.
Two acquisitions of pop art that Bacigalupi announced at last week's event reflect Walton's reach as a collector: Andy Warhol's 1985 painting "Dolly Parton" and Roy Lichtenstein's 1966 sculpture "Standing Explosion Red." The works aren't daring by today's lights, but more fully elaborate the American art picture that Walton begins to paint with her 18th century works. (She once said the collection wouldn't include work made after the mid-century.)
A third announced work, acquired on the eve of the event, Bacigalupi said, was Benjamin West's "Cupid and Psyche." West painted in the 18th and 19th centuries; this 1808 scene of a naked Psyche languishing in Cupid's arms might fill a content, if not an era, gap in the Crystal Bridges collection: nudity. But who knows? Bacigalupi said only about 10 percent of the collection has been made public. So far, 62 works have been announced or talked about.