Night at the museum
Museum director Don Bacigalupi gives the keynote lecture
Nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks, the once-sleepy town of Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, might not be where you’d expect to encounter a world-class museum like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The museum is situated on 120 acres of woods, ponds, and waterways. The architecture, designed by Moshe Safdie, complements the surrounding landscape, which offers visitors three and a half miles of hiking trails with seating areas built into the hillsides, along with opportunities to view monumental sculptural works by artists such as James Turrell and Leo Villareal. The museum was developed with major funding from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation. It had already amassed a first-rate collection of American art, acquiring works by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, and other prominent American artists, but was still in the construction phase when Don Bacigalupi was appointed director. As a former director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and the San Diego Museum of Art in California, Bacigalupi had a formidable arts background to draw upon, but Crystal Bridges was different in that it was not an established museum. He was heading into new territory. Bacigalupi, the newly appointed director of the (George) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago, scheduled for completion by 2018, presents his talk “Building the 21st Century Museum: Crystal Bridges and Beyond” at the New Mexico History Museum on Saturday, July 11. The talk is the keynote lecture for the Art Santa Fe international art fair.
Pasatiempo: Was Crystal Bridges developed around a key collection belonging to the Waltons?
Don Bacigalupi: Alice Walton and her private collecting were the inspiration for Crystal Bridges. At opening, the museum included more than 80 works from her collection in the inaugural installation, among more than 400 other works of the museum’s collection. The museum presents American works of art of five centuries, the 17th through the 21st. Alice Walton and her brothers were raised in Bentonville and their parents’ business was begun and grown in the town. The Walton family has continued to provide philanthropic support in the region to give back to the community of their upbringing. Pasa: Where did Crystal Bridges get its name from?
Bacigalupi: Alice Walton envisioned the name of the museum, derived from the natural spring that fuels the campus’s waterways — Crystal Spring — and the architectural bridges that architect Moshe Safdie designed for the museum.
Pasa: What was it that drew you to the project? What was the challenge in developing an art museum in a small city like Bentonville?
Bacigalupi: The project was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with a founder to create a new museum from scratch. Being the first art museum in the region, it was important to understand the needs of the regional communities and offer a wide array of programming and points of entry for diverse audiences. During my entire career, I’ve been motivated to find ways to make art more accessible and relevant in the lives of as many people as possible.
Pasa: What did you hope the initial experience of the visitor would be like at Crystal Bridges?
Bacigalupi: We emphasized a very welcoming experience for all visitors, ensuring that first-time museumgoers would be comfortable and enthused about visiting. We also wanted to ensure that the experience would be excellent and invigorating. Given the successes of attendance, we felt that these approaches succeeded.
Pasa: When you accepted the position of director of the forthcoming Lucas Museum, did you feel you had accomplished what you had set out to do as director of Crystal Bridges? Bacigalupi: I certainly sensed that I had accomplished what I had come there to do, and I left a team that I had assembled and mentored and had enormous confidence in. I was asked to remain on the museum’s board and Art Committee, so I have a unique vantage on its continuing development. The museum is an enormous success and in a very healthy and wellrespected state. — Michael Abatemarco
Don Bacigalupi presents Art Santa Fe’s keynote lecture, “Building the 21st Century Museum: Crystal Bridges and Beyond,” on Saturday, July 11, at 6:30 p.m., at the New Mexico History Museum (114 Lincoln Ave., 505-476-5200). Tickets, $10, are available from Tickets Santa Fe at the Lensic (www.ticketsantafe.org, 505-988-1234) and at the door.