Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with two of the art world’s most astute and unbiased critics: my eight year old daughter Sophie and her eight year old cousin Jayson. I intentionally skipped all the grand opening hoopla to have the chance to visit the museum with family during the Thanksgiving weekend, and my wait was greatly rewarded. We were beside ourselves with excitement, and despite having followed the construction and progress of the museum since attending the first announcement press conference in 2005, I was still completely blown away when we arrived.
Because we live in Rogers, Sophie has gone with us regularly to walk or bike the Compton Gardens trail and stand at the observation deck overlooking the construction site, but she was still giddy upon arrival. She’s been fortunate to visit some pretty stellar art museums at her tender age, from favorites such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City to the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Her cousin Jayson lives in south Arkansas, and told me he had never been to an art museum before (but that he was pretty sure that his art teacher was a famous artist and that she had lots of expensive paintings in their classroom!) – what a perfect pair to keep me on my toes during our visit!
Before entering, we paused outside to soak in Yield by New York artist Roxy Paine (b. 1966) at the circle drive entrance to Crystal Bridges. Despite being a little close to our reserved visit time, it induced many backseat oohs and ahs as we approached, and we found ourselves stopped in our tracks by it as we excitedly dashed from the car in the cool evening weather.
Once inside, we had to simply stop and think to come up with a plan for what to see first within the main categories of Colonial, 19th Century, Modern and Contemporary art galleries. We decided on Colonial after I confirmed for the kids that yes, that was where they were most likely to see Native Americans. We got off to a bit of an overwhelming start as both kids attempted to press their noses toward some of the museum’s most staggering, prominent works such as the headline-making $35 million Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand (1849). We were reminded frequently (and usually kindly) that the kids needed to stay 18 inches from the art. Some guards demonstrated this distance, others tapped them on shoulders, and a few simply used highly-effective glares. I managed not to run into any of the country’s prized art myself, and by the time we left the Colonial gallery we just about grasped the concept of distance between flailing arms and priceless art. Sigh.
I asked Jayson and Sophie in the car (along with much direction about really looking at the art, using quiet voices, acting like a lady and a gentleman and no statements of boredom or “how much longer?”) to each pick out their top five favorite pieces of art to discuss with me. Each bagged a couple of favorites in the Colonial gallery, with Sophie selecting “the princess with the pet flying squirrel,” aka John Singleton Copley’s 1765 oil on canvas Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth) and Portrait of a Girl and Her Dog in a Grape Arbor, c. 1855 – 1860 attributed to Susan Catherine Moore. Jayson’s favorite from the entire museum visit was Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix (1856). Clearly, he has quite a distinguished eye since he was not alone in his enthusiasm.
The kids were pretty observant, discussing the differences between the two chiefs by Charles Bird King and recalling that the sixteen oils they saw a bit earlier must be by Martin Johnson Heade after they spotted the similarities in Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle (ca. 1875 – 1890).
Of course, they were most excited about the Modern and Contemprary exhibitions, especially Wonder World, where they raved about Standing Explosion (Red) by Roy Lichtenstein and happily yelled and stomped on the ground (gasp – in a museum!) to activate Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear), Opus #132 Reverse (2007). The humorous Nick Cave sculptures, the Chuck Close triptych of President Bill Clinton and the startling, attention-grabbing John Cage Robot II (1995) by Nam June Paik really got them talking. Contemporary art has such a fantastic way of testing kids’ boundaries and comprehension of what art can or should be. They marveled at the realness of Evan Perry’s Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be (2010) and animatedly discussed (read: bickered over) their takes on Al Souza’s Field & Stream (2001) made of various puzzle pieces.
At two and a half hours in, I hadn’t heard one complaint or request to leave, but it was obviously more than we could take in with just one visit, so we’ll have to return. We want to go back to the secret room (aka Venice Installation: Gallery D (Second Antechamber) by Jenny Holzer, 1990) and I need to visit two of the pieces I’ve been most excited about since hearing of their acquisitions: Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell (1943) and Hall of the Mountain King by Marsden Hartley (ca. 1908 – 1909). I’d also like to do the audio tour.
We wrapped up in the fantastic interactive educational area for kids, where these two would happily have stayed for two more hours. They were able to dress up, play with puppets and explore textures and methods.
They even were able to try their hand at listening to detailed audio descriptions of art which they recreated and compared to the originals. I watched as Jayson drew one painting from memory rather than listening to the description, and as Sophie carefully followed directions such as “the horizon is at the center of the painting” and “her look is fierce,” resulting in her erasing the smile she had previously drawn and replacing it with a flat line:
All in all, a fantastic afternoon. The kids thanked me for taking them of their own accord (love that!) and I was appreciative of the chance to visit and take it all in from their perspective. We’ll be returning frequently and hope everyone will take advantage of the chance to visit Alice Walton’s gift to northwest Arkansas and the nation. What a tremendous opportunity for kids and families from all over the heartland and the south to see works of art that could change their lives forever.
By the way, I definitely recommend taking a moment to watch this short opening video (is it nerdy to say that it made me teary-eyed?) and read this insightful article called High Art in Middle America from the Arkansas Times. I also loved the article which ran last week in the Washington Post by Warwick Sabin, publisher of the Oxford American, on why small-town Arkansas is the perfect home for a major art museum.
Enjoy expanding your horizons as much as we did!
I carefully reviewed the Fair Use guidelines helpfully posted on the Crystal Bridges website to ensure I posted links to works of art appropriately. Obviously, I have no personal gain through this post and share it only to encourage others to make the sojourn to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas to experience these amazing masterpieces personally.