I like art. Even people who have only seen me probably suspect this is so, because I usually have paint on my face. I have chosen to follow my passion for art into college (although hopefully, at some point, out of it again and on to making art for a living). However, I am studying art in Northwest Arkansas, which, although a great place to live, has not historically been a great place to look at fine art (except in books, which are great anywhere). But something large is sounding in the depths, like a huge, beautiful, art-filled whale serenading us, calling out to us, whispering into our ears “Hey! Hey! Art! Look at it!”
I’m talking about Crystal Bridges, the new American art museum which has recently opened in Bentonville, Arkansas. I’ve been to it twice already, and am going back next week. And probably again next month. And you know what? I’m still excited! The first time that I visited, it was with a group of students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts Program from the University of Arkansas, and it was for opening day: November 11, 2011. I had been looking forward to going since I saw an architectural illustration for the museum in 2009 at the Fayetteville airport, so I was really excited. All the students were—we emailed back and forth about it, made arrangement to carpool, and, when the day finally arrived, three other girls and I drove up together. It was the birthday of the girl who was driving, so we kept joking that the opening was in honor of her. When we walked in, it was packed. The architecture is amazing there—it’s built into a valley, and there are huge windows, so you can see out into nature from almost anywhere in the museum. And every room is filled with art by American artists, some of whom I (and the other students of the art department) have lived with and worked with and thought about and loved. I know that at least one of the students broke down and cried because he was so excited and amazed and astounded. If this sounds silly to you, imagine meeting your idol—like, for example, if you had studied and loved John Lennon for your whole life and then you got to meet him. That’s what seeing this art in person was like for him, and for me. Personally, I teared up a little when I stood in a room with Sargent and Cassat and Eakins paintings because I knew that this museum, being here, is going to change everything.
I have been to a lot of art museums. I have probably been to more art museums than anyone I know. Like, probably 400,000 art museums.* And because I have been really lucky in my life in terms of travel—both through study abroad experiences and independent trips—I have had the opportunity to visit many of the greatest art museums in the world: the Louvre, the San Francisco MOMA, the Chicago Institute of Art, the Uffizi, the Vatican Museum, and many others. I will honestly tell you now that Crystal Bridges is not the most amazing art museum that I have ever been to.** But I think it may the first one that made me cry. Because here’s the thing: we have this beautiful, free art museum less than thirty minutes away, and that is amazing. On opening day, and then again when I visited the week before last, it was amazing how packed the museum was with visitors, and how excited and bubbly everyone was. It has never been possible in Fayetteville to get into your car and drive less than about ten hours to get to world-class art, and, as far as I can tell, people love that they can now. And, although I have been blessed and seen some of the greatest art in the world, I was astonished and I continue to be astonished by my ability to go back over and over again. Here is art that I can go back to see repeatedly, and live with, and fall in love with again and again instead of experiencing it only once in a spectacular and overwhelming burst. Here is art that is available both to people like me, who love and study art, and to people who have never visited a museum in their lives. Here is a place where people with so many different levels of experience and opportunity can meet and learn and talk about art. And that’s amazing, because I really believe that art can help us understand other people better, and can give us a peek into a past which we may otherwise never see.
Here are the things you need to know about Crystal Bridges as an art museum:
1. It has American art from all time periods, from many of America’s most famous artists, including Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell, and Mary Cassat. (Also some other totally awesome artists whose names you might not know if no one ever made you take five art history classes but whose art you might like.)
2. It is completely free to visit.
3. It. Is. Beautiful. (No, seriously, go look at a picture of it. Do it. Do it now. Look at that architecture, it’s crazy.)
4. It has this picture of a man fighting a bear at it.
Speaking of fighting (but not, alas, with bears), it astounds me that some people were angry about this museum being built in Arkansas. The main theme of their argument seemed to be something along the lines of “Why are you taking this world-class art and putting it in the middle of nowhere, where civilized folks can’t get to it?” I can offer them at least one answer: I think that having art here is important, and having the art accessible to a new group of people is even more important. Because I believe that we can all gain something valuable and beautiful by looking at art, regardless of where we live, even if it is simply the cathartic experience of looking at something lovely and interesting. Granted, I might be slightly biased, but that art is important to being human is something I honestly see as the truth.
We’ll have to see where this museum goes, and the decisions it makes, because I’m not sure where their plans will take them. But there is one thing I am sure of: it’s going to, and has already begun to, change everything: for me personally, for the University of Arkansas art department, for the state of Arkansas, and, if I’m not getting too crazy, the Midwest. The art department, which obviously affects me very personally, is already changing. The expectations are raising, both in what teachers expect of students and in what students (including myself) expect from themselves. We can learn so much just by studying art, but seeing art in person shows you so much more. From looking at art, we students can see how things are made, and we can learn new techniques and develop new inspirations from that. We can look at our predecessors, these artists who have become beloved and successful, and use them to galvanize and excite and expand our art and our outlooks. And that means everything to me.
The museum’s simple presence is giving people a place to experience something new which residents of coastal states perhaps take for granted. It is allowing people to be excited about things they love and excited about things they know nothing about. And, as an artist, I am excited about how excited people are getting. I am excited about how people are talking about and thinking about and loving art! Because I love art so, so much, and I can’t wait to see how this will echo out and expand and bloom and create something beautiful and spectacular and new.
I think it is going to be amazing.
*This number may be slightly exaggerated.
**Although it might be the most amazing metaphorical art-whale.