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Museum or drag queen?

Former Blaffer gallery head speaks at UH about controversial new appointment at Wal-mart heiress' Crystal Bridges

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The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at night Photo via Safdie Architects
Don Bacigalupi Lecture
News_Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Former Blaffer Art Museum director and University of Houston alum Don Bacigalupi spoke at UH’s College of Architecture Tuesday night about his current directorship at the upcoming Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Set to open Nov. 11 in Bentonville, Ark., the plans for Crystal Bridges have been controversial. Founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton to present American art from the colonial period to the present, the museum has made headlines for its aggressive collecting practices — particularly after it made acquisitions from several highly regarded but financially strapped institutions.

In 2005, Walton paid the New York Public Library $35 million for Asher Brown Durand’s Kindred Spirits, relocating the Hudson River School masterwork thousands of miles from its home state. Two years later, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art successfully thwarted Walton’s attempted purchase of Thomas Eakin’s famous Philadelphia painting, The Gross Clinic.

Crystal Bridges’ sullied image changed with the appointment of Bacigalupi in 2009. As director of the Toledo Museum of Art, he oversaw construction of the museum’s new Glass Pavilion, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese firm Sanaa. With a plan to greatly broaden patron demographics, Bacigalupi raised attendance at the Ohio museum to unprecedented levels in his five-year tenure through outreach and educational programs.

Bacigalupi says he plans to use the same approach at Crystal Bridges. “Alice Walton founded the museum with an educational mission,” he said while showing a slide of the new building, designed by starchitect Moshe Safdie. “A great deal of the building’s footprint is dedicated to educational workshop and studio space.”

Located in the heart of the Ozarks, Bacigalupi said Crystal Bridges brings the greatest examples of American art to a “place where art hasn’t been accessible.”

“Alice has been a leader in improving life in the area,” he continued, describing the regional airport she helped build in a town whose population has nearly doubled over the past decade, in large part to the ever-growing corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart.

After getting over the name Crystal Bridges — which he joked “reminded him of a halfway house, a country singer or a drag queen” — Bacigalupi said he was impressed with Walton’s overall vision to assemble a collection that examines the entirety of American art production.

While he never set out to acquire works with a specific theme in mind, he and his staff noticed certain threads in American art like “artist and nature,” “artist as innovator,” “women in art,” and “artists on the world stage” and moved forward with these ideas in mind. He illustrated the themes with a rare look at nearly 30 examples from the collection, including works from Roxy Paine, Charles Wilson Peale, Marisol, Mary Cassatt, James Turrell, and Devorah Sperber.

Bacigalupi approached the museum’s controversial pieces head on. He showed a Thomas Eakins painting Crystal Bridges purchased in lieu of Gross Clinic as well as Durand's now-infamous Kindered Spirits. During the “women in art” portion, he showed a Kara Walker tapestry entitled Warm Summer Evening in 1863, which details the destruction of an African-American orphanage next to the grounds of the future New York Public Library.

During the Q&A session, Bacigalupi was asked what his top 10 most desired acquisitions would be for the museum. He laughed and said he had already bought “eight out of 10,” keeping his list a secret, along with the many remaining titles in the 450-piece collection.

Crystal Bridges opens on 11/11/11. Will you be traveling to the Ozarks?

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