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Are We Not Worthy

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by Gentry Lassiter
The battle is over and Arkansas and Alice Walton are on the losing end. Walton’s Crystal Bridges museum

in a joint venture with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., offered $68 million for what is reportedly now the most valuable pre-World War II painting by an American artist. But the bid was turned down after a controversial battle to keep the painting in Philadelphia.

Walton and the National Gallery made the offer to Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University medical school last year for the painting The Gross Clinic, but prominent Philadelphians rallied to keep the painting in Philadelphia, saying that it was a civic treasure that would contribute to Philadelphia becoming  “America’s Next Great City.”

Does this mean that Philadelphians believe that Bentonville, the future home of Crystal Bridges, should not be a candidate for “the next great city” in America?  Not really. But, the purchase of the painting would have been an important addition to the collection of American art to be housed at the museum founded by the Wal-Mart heiress. The purchase price of The Gross Clinic exceeds the estimated cost to build the 100,000 square feet Moshe Safdie designed museum, which is expected to open in 2009 on 100 acres in downtown Bentonville.

As part of the fundraising effort to keep the painting in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art issued a statement supporting the belief that the painting is an important part of Philadelphia history and culture. “Ten Reasons to Keep Thomas Eakins’ ‘The Gross Clinic’ in Philadelphia,” included the argument that the painting was created by a Philadelphian about a Philadelphian, embodied the principles of the city and the statement that, ‘If Philadelphia is to be America’s “Next Great City,’ it must protect the special qualities that residents prize and visitors seek, and remain inspired by the city’s tradition of excellence in art, science, and education, united in America’s greatest nineteenth-century painting, The Gross Clinic.

In response to the Pennsylvania art enthusiasts thwarting the purchase, Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery issued a short, two-line statement, saying: “We are disappointed that Eakins’ Gross Clinic will not be coming to the nation’s capital or America’s heartland. However, we are pleased for the city of Philadelphia.”

Whose loss?
Although Crystal Bridges expressed disappointment, how do Northwest Arkansas residents feel about the loss?

According to comments left on The Morning News website shortly after the announcement that the painting would not be coming to NWA, there seemed to be little concern over not having “The Gross Clinic” in Bentonville.

“What do we need with an art museum like that here?” one user asked.

Other posts indicated similar feelings. Some indicated that it is not that Arkansas shouldn’t have an art museum because its citizens are not cultured enough, but that citizens simply would have no interest in going to the museum.

Even University of Arkansas students seem unenthusiastic—or at least, uninformed about the museum.

“I would not go out of my way to go [to Crystal Bridges], but if I had nothing else to do, or if someone brought it up, I would go,” said UA senior Adam Prasse.

While the comments above are a skewed opinion of just a few residents, if residents do not think they would visit the art museum, is it an indication that we are not cultured enough to have a museum of this caliber?

The question raised by this situation is whether Northwest Arkansas is ready for an art museum of Crystal Bridges’ magnitude.  Although many believe that it would be a stereotypical insult to the region, the answer to this question could very well be “no.”  Few people in this region are familiar with The Gross Clinic, much less the controversy over Crystal Bridges’ failed acquisition of the painting.

Local tourism, chamber of commerce officials and art patrons have lauded the museum as an important asset that will draw more visitors to NWA. But, in a series of casual interviews conducted with Fayetteville residents, those who understood the impact and magnitude of Crystal Bridges were in the stark minority. Many of those interviewed were University of Arkansas students, who would normally be considered most up-to-date on current events and intellectual hot-points in their area.

This could mean that Crystal Bridges has not been referenced by local newspapers and television stations often enough. However, if Northwest Arkansas residents are truly enthused by the addition of a new art museum, should it matter how frequently it is discussed in the media?

On the other hand, since many notable real estate brokers have labeled Northwest Arkansas as one of the fastest growing areas in the country, there may be an influx of art-savvy museum patrons who will enthusiastically welcome Crystal Bridges. But, it is arguable whether there will be enough people with time to peruse the museum.

If the administrators of Crystal Bridges want to contribute to the education of locals by providing them with a collection of prominent artwork, they may have an uphill battle to fight in getting the message to the masses.

Although most of those interviewed are mainly unaware of the museum at this point, University of Arkansas students will benefit from a museum of this caliber being located just a few miles away to help develop their cultural awareness. And, since enrollment at the university is increasing every year, a more educated and art-enthused audience for art establishments is potentially being produced. If these students regularly peruse the walls of Crystal Bridges, the museum’s popularity among the permanent residents could increase as well.

A major art museum in Northwest Arkansas could be a catalyst for residents to become more interested in art, but so far, people who live in this area know relatively little about Crystal Bridges or the art that it is to house. Although the museum could very well spark an upheaval of art enthusiasts, in order for that to occur, the museum will have to more aggressively publicize its collection and intentions to the residents of Northwest Arkansas.

The Gross Clinic story
Eakins produced “The Gross Clinic” in 1875, which depicts a prominent Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel Gross, performing surgery on a boy’s leg with attendants present. Alumni of the Thomas Jefferson University medical school purchased the painting in 1878 for $200. It has been displayed at the school in a small remote gallery and has remained out of the spotlight until the recent bids for its purchase by Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art protested the purchase bid of $68 million by Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery and led the fundraising drive to match the asking price. The Pennsylvania protestors were given until December 26 of last year to raise the money to purchase the painting. The museum and the academy managed to raise $30 million through fundraising efforts and procured loans from Wachovia Bank to cover the rest of the cost of the painting just days before the deadline.

Most of the controversy surrounding the Bentonville art museum’s bid for the painting dealt was the concern that the painting would be moved from Philadelphia. Many Philadelphians were concerned that a painting produced by an artist from Philadelphia would be taken from the city that they want to become the “next great city in America.”

However, the controversy over moving the painting—which has now achieved “civic treasure” status—from Philadelphia to Arkansas was not the only controversy surrounding the deal. Jefferson University medical school had to quash negative outcry from Philadelphians who accused the institution of selling the painting to raise funds for something as mundane as university expansion.

What do you think? Comment at www.freeweekly.com.

3 Comments

William L Armacost February 9, 2007 at 11:56 am

As a fifteen year resident of Northwest Arkansas, I believe I can say, with little fear of being wrong, that without Alice Walton’s funding, a museum of Crysatl Bridges proposed quality would likely never materialize in our area.

That being said, many another museum in many another city would likewise fail to exist if their development relied heavily on broadbased public support. Would Shreveport Louisiana have the R. W. Norton Gallery and Gardens had R. W. Norton not lived? Doubtful. I would surmise the same is true for Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum. The trend likley extends to even larger urban areas. How many residents of New York or Washington DC make regular visits to the Metropolitan or to the National Gallery or the National Museum of American Art (I forget the new name assigned since the completion of renovations)? Although I do not have factual evidence to back me up, I would suspect the answer is very few. Washington almost certainly owes its museums to its status as the national capital. Simply put, the large majority of the population does not place a premium on the arts (Witness the number of struggling Symphony Orchestras.).

Crystal Bridges will likely never be the draw some would like it to be. The same is true of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. Both are worthy projects, but in and of themselves they will only attract a very small audience. I am the only person I know who will make a trip specifically to see a museum or garden (Twice I drove six hours to Fort Worth Texas to see the S. R Gifford exhibition a couple of years ago.) Most tourists want something more or something else. Until NWA offers greater options (At which point in time I myself may be compelled to cut and run, the area having grown too much for my likings already) it will not be a significant travel destination.

Regardless of the degree of patronage provided by the local population, if Crystal Bridges does reach its desired potential, it will then become a source of pride. Also, by purchasing privately owned works, The museum will play a part in the noble effort to provide the public with greater access to art (It was my understanding that The Gross Clinic was not easily accessable. Thanks to the contriversy, at least that may be remedied.), something else to be proud of, no matter how many avail themselves of the new-found opportunity.

As to the significance of failing to obtain Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, I do not think it should be overly exaggerated. Perhaps some expect too much after the successful acquisition of Asher Brown Durand’s Kindred Spirits. Again, without evidence to back me up, I doubt it is all that easy to pick up major pieces by major artists, especially those who have been gone for so long. I myself have been waiting to see what works, if any, Crystal Bridges might obtain by Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Fredric Edwin Church, John Singleton Copley, and John Singer Sargent. When and if Crystal Bridges does acquire works by those men, I do not expect to see Among the Sierra Nevada, Kauterskill Clove, Niagara, John Adams, or The Wyndham Sisters. Most likely we will see secondary works that are not coveted as museum centerpieces. I would suspect that for now, Kindred Spirits fills that role at Crystal Bridges.

Reply to this comment
Joan E. Perkins February 10, 2007 at 5:41 pm

I agree with the e-mail sent by Mr. Armacost. I think the purpose of art, beauty/museums is to bring the level of human understanding to a higher level. I would also guess that the percentage of locals who appreciate any art museum is about the same as our local interest in Crystal Bridges. A gallery is built to bring the opportunity to exceed the lowest common denominator. I thank Ms Walton for bringing this Nw. Arkansas area the opportunity to grow beyond what may or may not be a lack of interest in art and a gallery of the caliber that the Crtystal Bridges Museum will bring.

Reply to this comment
Jennifer February 13, 2007 at 5:59 am

I applaud Mr. Armacost’s and Ms. Perkins’ thoughtful responses to this article.

I, too, am a 15-year resident of NW Arkansas but originally hail from the Northeast. A significant portion of my family lives in and around Philadelphia, and I can tell the residents of NW Arkansas one thing for certain: Philly needs all the help it can get in its almost certainly futile effort to right itself.

Despite the influence of the Republican National Convention (over 10 years ago) that *finally* cleaned up the city a little bit (meaning, they painted the bridge and took down the multiple billboards advertising XXX strip bars and “massage” parlors), Philadelphia remains a cesspool of crime and corruption.

Its historical significance remains, and its art museum (made somewhat famous when Rocky Balboa ran up its steps) is quite excellent, but beyond that the city has little merit. For example: during a 100F heatwave just last summer, the city had to call out the National Guard to keep its citizens from looting and rioting. Guess what? It was just as hot in New York and Boston! I won’t even go into the stories my cousin’s told me about day-to-day life as a college student in the city.

All that aside, I can’t say I’m surprised about the indifferent attitudes of the locals in the Times. Is anyone, really? An appreciation of and an emphasis on the arts is fading in today’s society. But have the arts ever been a prominent factor in the lives of most people who live here? Not as far as I can recall, as someone who attended two public schools and college in this area. I wish I could be more optimistic, but the University of Arkansas’ attitudes towards its own art programs (writing, theater, music and visual arts) is proof enough for me of what is truly important in this part of the country.

Alice Walton’s intentions are noble and forward-thinking, but I wonder if a museum will ever be more than an idle curiosity in a region far more in love with Everyday Low Prices?

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