Art Bridges’ Art Populism

Alice Walton’s foundation helps rural, small-town museums share in big-city riches.

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Art Bridges is the new foundation established by Alice Walton in 2017 “to focus on sharing outstanding works of American art across the country.” I admire her. A few years ago, she established the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. Starting a new museum from scratch takes passion, vision, good sense, and lots of money, and now she’s building a foundation to help other museums. She’s got good taste, too. Good taste and big money are, to paraphrase our local bard Robert Frost, the two roads in the whole wide world most likely to diverge.

She’s a patriot. It’s difficult to raise money to support American art scholarship. Shows of historic American work — art before 1945 — are the hardest to promote. It doesn’t have the warm patina of Old Master art, the pastel colors of impressionism, or the snap, crackle, and pop of contemporary art. Today, the teaching of American history is worthy of a class-action malpractice suit, and that affects the audience for American art in our colleges, the marketplace of collectors, and museums. Walton respects and values our heritage.

“Outstanding works are in museum vaults and private collections,” she writes. “Let’s make that art available to everyone.” Hallelujah. I’ve written many times about the obligation big museums have to share the wealth. Channeling my inner Huey Long, I think it’s a shame that established big-city museums in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia sit on thousands of objects they don’t have room to display, or interest in using. It’s high-class hoarding.

Art Bridges is only two years old. It’s an emerging organization and linked to the bigger Crystal Bridges Museum enterprise, itself only a few years old. It’s focusing on museums outside the big cities, some rural, some in small cities, with annual budgets of less than $5 million a year. Walton puts her money where her mouth is. Art Bridges has net assets, according to its 2018 IRS filing, of $190 million.

Helping these museums is so important. There’s so much creativity in these places, and so much local pride in them. A few weeks ago, Art Bridges appointed Paul Provost as the new CEO. He’s an experienced curator — he led the American department at Christie’s. He’s savvy and intellectually sound. He’s a fantastic choice. Margi Conrads is the Arts Bridges curator. She’s a great curator. One of the best shows I’ve seen was her reinterpretation of the Nelson-Atkins’s superb American collection in Kansas City.

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