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Everyday Low Price

Before Friday there was little to report about Crystal Bridges, Alice Walton’s swank art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Bentonville city council and Arkansas state legislature has been starstruck all year, granting permits and concessions (not including last year’s sales tax exemption) to everyone who speaks the magic words, “Crystal Bridges.” There were a few rumors of paintings bought, but most of the museum’s acquisitions since it bought Gilbert Stuart’s 1797 portrait of George Washington have been quiet. The paintings on the permanent collection’s Web site grow more prestigious every month, though, which is a testament to Walton’s deep pockets and to Christopher Crosman’s good judgment.

The stillness couldn’t last. Friday Thomas Jefferson University announced that Philadelphia has six weeks to raise more than $68 million, else Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875
Thomas Eakins’ 1875 painting The Gross Clinic would be sold for that price to Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Philadelphians are not happy. Andrew Wyeth, not a little melodramatically, exclaimed that The Gross Clinic “should never, never, never leave Philadelphia,” explaining “It is my favorite American painting.” The Philadelphia Enquirer, rankled by Jefferson’s apparent disrespect for the cultural importance of the painting to the city, groused:

The point is that Philadelphia too often doesn’t take enough care of its cultural and historic legacies. Too often, Philadelphians have been insensitive about the value of their heritage. Despite Jefferson assurances that it has tried to be sensitive, the fact is that it looked elsewhere first.

Stephan Salisbury, writing for the Inquirer, reminds that Philadelphia hasn’t been very good about keeping its art sacred, but nevertheless avows that past wrongs don’t make Jefferson’s sale right, and lots of other people agree.

The price tag on the painting is really sensational, about $50 million more than any other Eakins painting ever sold. Even if, by some miracle, Philadelphia raises the money and keeps the painting in town, the amount of money that Walton’s expending on the collection is incredible: in terms of endowment and aggressiveness, the museum’s only rival may already be the Getty—and it’s not half as interested in American art as Crystal Bridges is. From now on, no work is sacred. Kindred Spirits was only a taste of what Crystal Bridges is capable. Cities, museums, private owners looking to make a dime will be dropping paintings like handkerchiefs, waiting coyly for Walton to come by and pick them up.

(Previously on Crystal Bridges: “Kindred Spirits,” “2005 is dead,” and “Don’t Burn Your Crystal Bridges Before You Cross Them”)



this has nothing to do with the walton’s desire to turn into a very belated patron of the arts, except, of course, by collecting past masters rather than funding present taskers who may one day become masters… but with the depction of the gross lab…

1911, saw the publication of El arbol de la ciencia a foundational novel of 20th century Spanish literature. it follows an apathetic medical student who is your classic philosophe, having read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche sees through the fiction of this life, but himself leads a rather boring life of no consequence.

graphic descriptions of the gross lab shocked the spanish readership of time.

your post about Kindred Spirits pre-dates my discovery of HR. it caused such a stir among some here when my employer sold that painting. frankly, i didn’t care. we are a library, not an art museum.

i find it interesting this shift of art from established institutions in the northeast to arkansas. i suppose it reflects a new geography of wealth? a hundred years ago perhaps europeans were horrified that rich american capitalists like J. P. Morgan made off with boatloads of art treasures because he had the bucks that europe neeeded. nowadays the money is in retail chain stores and TJU and NYPL need to get some of it to stay afloat.

fortunately, Morgan’s cache is accessible to the public at both the museum at his former home (just outside my window) and at the Metropolitan Museum. maybe Miss Walton will be equally generous, but…Crystal Bridges???...please! that name’s got to go!

i think she got it from thomas kinkade, the painter of light, before he became known as t kinkade: the man who pissed on pooh-bear, grabbed many women’s breasts, and soddenly left dinner parties, hosted by himself, without paying the bill.

The Kincade theory is way better than the official explanation:

The museum takes its name from a natural spring on the museum’s wooded site as well as the unique glass-and-wood building design created by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie. An innovative building design – reflective of its forested creek-side home, and linked by landscaped trails and paths connecting area neighborhoods – will capture the interplay of nature, art and culture in the region.

Anyway, Richard, your parallel is an apt one—I’m sure there were a lot of old money European families irritated that people like Morgan and Carnegie trotted off with their treasures all the while looking down their noses at New York and Pittsburgh and lamenting how it would be Paris. It’s true, too, NY never became Paris—nor did it need to. On the other hand, Bentonville is a far cry further from New York than New York is from Paris. Bentonville’s really excited about it all, but the tourism they expect CB to bring in will be an odd sort from the tourism that tends to visit NW Arkansas now. There are some good artist communities (Eureka Springs) and good artists (mom) there, but—well, it’s northwest Arkansas for cryin’ out loud. A lot of people end up there only because they somehow drove past Branson.

(Following from Kindred Spirits, I bought with a birthday gift certificate to Amazon the collected essays of Emerson. It came in the mail today. I’m stoked about that.)

On the other hand, Bentonville’s cultural power-grabbing perhaps mutes the animosity between the east and west coasts. I’d like to think that a wealthy art collector on the upper east side would rather her/his stash go to the Getty or LACMA or the Norton Simon instead of a place indwelled with the spirit of TK.

that said, I don’t wholly buy the distinction you make between libraries and museums. they’re faces of the same coin. although there are many libraries and some museums that are exclusive, the study of art is enhanced by the study of books and vice versa, and public libraries can perhaps better than anyone make that notion clear. the NYPL has been really good at invoking both, and i don’t know that there are better places for works such as cole’s the course of empire.

The CB name is indeed crap, whatever its inspiration.

I’ve never seen that painting before. It’s very compelling.

It’s even more when bigger. The one man—a student?—recoiling in awe? disgust? fear? is a really nice touch: his emotional response is juxtaposed with Professor Gross’s calm face and bloody hand and Eakins’ (back, left, holding a pencil) own placid, almost disinterested face…

(That recoil is pretty significant for other reasons, too…)

ok, i admit it. i did have similar thoughts about bentonville, but i dare not express them, lest i be accused of some version of east coast elitism.

i agree about the correlation of the missions of libraries and museums. however, it’s hard for me to see how the ownership of a handful of good paintings by a library will serve to enhance the study of art or further the dissemination of information, the purpose of most libraries. better that the painting go to a real museum where it can be viewed/studied along with other examples of the same medium. (however [snobbish statement coming] is CB a real museum?)

:) Fair enough. I lean toward applauding the mixed aesthetics of word and paint and believe that the inclusion of a good painting in a library—or a good book or two in an art museum—will lend value to both. But I can’t deny the value of seeing paintings with paintings rather than books, so I’ll quit arguing about it for now.

Anyway, I think it’s clear that CB will be a stunning collection, and so long as the public can visit that collection, a museum will exist. Now, what kind of museum it will be is another matter altogether. How will the art be presented? In what contexts will their stories be told? That we don’t know; I have strong suspicions that it will not be to my liking. Perhaps, though, we should plan a Hermits Rock road trip to CB, in 2009 when the museum opens, to find out?

i forgot to mention my adventure to see the Eakins painting while on a visit to philadelphia once. my memory is that it involved finding the right building in the TJU complex, then getting into the building and then getting a security guard to unlock the room where the painting is displayed. perhaps even in bentonville access to the painting will be a bit easier.