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Crystal Bridges is making it, with new $800 million 

BUILDING AN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM: Cranes in the center are putting copper on the roof of the 20th century art pavilion. When their work is done, the center will be excavated to create one of two spring-fed pools.
  • BUILDING AN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM: Cranes in the center are putting copper on the roof of the 20th century art pavilion. When their work is done, the center will be excavated to create one of two spring-fed pools.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is "the project of the decade," David Houston, the museum's director of curatorial and one of many imports who've left major museums to come to the wilds of Arkansas, told a reporter at last week's press tour of the grounds and buildings in Bentonville. He said museum professionals from all over are clamoring for invitations to the festivities planned for the Nov. 11 opening.

Among them, no doubt, are skeptics, those whom Director Don Bacigalupi said are still resisting the idea that heiress Alice Walton will open a first-rate and successful American museum on the Ozark plateau.

There are probably fewer skeptics as of last Wednesday, about the museum's future at any rate, when Bacigalupi announced that the Walton Family Foundation has given the museum $800 million dollars in operating, endowment and capital needs funding. Add that to the $411 million or so already invested in the museum by the foundation and Helen Walton, who donated $250 million in 2005, and you're talking some real money.

Of the new gift, $350 million will go toward operating the 200,000-square-foot, multi-gallery museum, library and meeting space, a Moshe Safdie design valued on the museum's income tax reports at $100 million. A drawdown of 4 percent a year from that $350 million fund should produce $14 million for operations. Bacigalupi said it's expected the museum will cost between $16 million and $20 million a year to run — more than the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and perhaps equivalent to the St. Louis Art Museum. Another $325 million will endow the museum for future acquisitions and other initiatives, and $125 million will be invested for future capital needs.

The director — who is said to be superb at fund-raising — said the museum has made "tremendous progress" in obtaining gifts from outside the Walton family, from local and national foundations, corporations and individuals. He declined to say how they compared to the scale of the $800 million Walton Family gift, but said they were "major-major."

There will be revenues from the restaurant and gift shop — which will feature a kiosk where you can download a digital print of a work in the collection, but the museum hasn't decided on an entry fee yet. Bacigalupi said the museum wants to be "accessible."

The scope of the museum is beginning to be felt more clearly as the architecturally stunning complex of buildings tucked into an Ozark ravine draws to completion. Besides the seven galleries — which total about 40,000 square feet of exhibit space (twice that of the Arkansas Arts Center) — there is a library with 60,000 "items," librarian Catherine Peterson said, including still-secret documents and ephemera that relate to the collection; several art studios, one of which will be stocked with art supplies and open to the public; a restaurant featuring "low Midwest, high Southern cuisine" (as described by food and beverage head Case Dighero); a Marlon Blackwell-designed gift store, an amphitheater; a "community showcase" featuring art from nearby institutions, and a "Great Hall" for concerts and films.

But besides the art and educational opportunities, surely one of the most appealing things about Crystal Bridges is the grounds — a "Kindred Spirit" setting threaded by five trail systems, some paved, some soft-surface, that wend their way over the creek and past springs and rock ledges in the Waltons' hilly 100-acre ravine.

Last Wednesday, reporters were led on a tour through the galleries, each devoted to a historical period and arranged in chronological order. Curator Kevin Murphy, whose expertise is in 18th and 19th century landscape, said that along with Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington (1797) and Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits" (1849), a "critical acquisition" made last week will greet visitors in the first building's galleries, to feature work from the colonial period through the 19th. Crystal Bridges has developed an iPhone application that visitors can download for an aural tour, and will also have devices available at the desk for people to borrow.

Early 20th century and modernist works will be exhibited in rooms within one of the bridges over Crystal Springs' pools; the glass-walled, arched pine beam-roofed structure will offer a view to the north of a Mark di Suvero sculpture. Asked if this were where the Jackson Pollock would hang, Bacigalupi said no and gestured toward the next gallery, whose high ceilings and open space will accommodate the scale of late 20th century and contemporary work.

Bacigalupi wasn't being serious, or at least not obviously so, about whether the collection would include a Pollock. It does include, however, a number of contemporary works, which when the museum opens will be hung in the 8,000-square-foot space on the first floor of the library building, which will later be used for changing exhibits.

Though the museum has revealed some of its collection in a steady drip since last year, most recently the stainless steel Roxy Paine sculpture "Yield" that sits at the entrance, Murphy and others said the secrecy will allow for greater excitement on opening day, which he said holds many surprises for the art world. It is known how many works will be on the walls when CBMAA opens: around 400, which Bacigalupi described as the "bulk of the collection."

The evening before the museum tour, the museum leadership invited the press to the James Turrell skyscape for a sunset light show. The skyscape, located at the head of a sculpture-lined trail that leads from Compton Gardens in the middle of town and along Crystal Springs creek to the south entrance of the museum, is a kiva-like stone structure with an opening, or oculus, at the top and bench seating around the inner edge. LED lights hidden behind and above the seating bounce color off the inner dome, which seems to change the color of the darkening night sky. Volcanic ash, raked Japanese-garden style every morning by the grounds crew, is the central flooring; stand there and your voice echoes loudly about the room. Curator Houston said the skyscape is meant to be experienced rather than described, and said it had a sort of ritualistic feel. When a reporter noted that when it opens July 1 to the public, that some rituals most certainly will be observed, Bacigalupi laughed and said that people have greeted the artist with babies on their hips conceived in a skyscape; Turrellians they're called.

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