A Talk With: The New Head of Crystal Bridges

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Don Bacigalupi/Toledo Museum of Art

Don Bacigalupi/Toledo Museum of Art

If you follow the arts you already know that the Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton has a museum-in-progress in Bentonville, Ark., where her father, Sam Walton, opened his first retail store in 1951. On Monday her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is still under construction, announced a new director. Don Bacigalupi, presently head of the Toledo Museum of Art, will be taking over at Crystal Bridges in October.

After the announcement I talked with Don by phone about his new job, the challenges of attracting visitors to an out of the way destination and the main question most people have about Crystal Bridges — what’s next in its aggressive acquisition strategy, which has more than once involved dangling big money in front of distressed institutions?

Some background. Walton’s museum project first came to wide notice in 2005 when she paid more than $35 million for Asher B. Durand’s 1849 canvas Kindred Spirits, a key work of American landscape painting that was being sold by the New York Public Library. The following year she attempted to buy Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece The Gross Clinic from Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia, in a $68 million joint purchase arrangement with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. That set off alarm bells in Philadelphia, where Eakins spent most of his fraught career, and the painting was purchased instead by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Neither the New York Public Library nor Jefferson University is a museum, so neither is subject to the various museum association guidelines that discourage the sale of art from a museum’s permanent collection for any purpose except to purchase more art. But things got more complicated with Walton’s next attempted deal, a $30 million sharing arrangement with financially troubled Fisk University for the work in the Alfred Stieglitz collection left to the school by Georgia O’Keeffe. That arrangement would violate those museum association guidelines — Fisk wants the money to close gaps in its general budget. In any event, for now that deal is tied up in the courts.

Next up were the trustees of Randolph College in Virginia, who announced in the summer of 2007 that they had decided to sell off work from the campus museum for the same reason as Fisk, to help balance the school’s budget, a decision that led the museum’s director to resign in protest. Months earlier, in May, Walton had flown in to look over that collection, too, but without making any offers. Her acquisitions adviser John Wilmerding later confirmed that she had an interest in the collection but was reluctant to get caught up in another de-accessioning controversy. Which is understandable. One more of those and Crystal Bridges would seem like a chronic enabler of institutions looking to evade the rules that are supposed to guide museum practice.

Here are the main parts of my conversation with Bacigalupi.

LACAYO: This is a high profile new job you’ve just gotten. How did you get there?

BACIGALUPI: They first got in touch with me about two and half months ago.

LACAYO: Had you put your name forward?

BACIGALUPI: No. I don’t think I was any more aware of Crystal Bridges than anyone else. I hadn’t been to Bentonville, so it was a revelation to come here and learn more about what’s happening.

LACAYO: I know that the Crystal Bridges permanent collection is still very much a work in progress. Do you have an idea in mind of parameters for the collection?

BACIGALUPI: The parameters are all of American art, from colonial to contemporary. While I think most of the information that’s been released about the collection has emphasized 19th century material, there have been a few 20th century acquisitions, like Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. But the collection will continue to evolve and grow.

LACAYO: There was an appeals court decision recently in the Fisk case, in which the court decided that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico, which controls O’Keeffe’s estate, could not block Fisk from selling to Crystal Bridges a half interest in the Stieglitz Collection, which was donated to Fisk by O’Keeffe. Fisk still has to go back to court to show that it’s not possible for it to adhere to the original terms of the O’Keeffe bequest, and it will also have to satisfy the Tennessee state attorney general that any sharing arrangement meets the best interests of the people of his state, but I assume that Crystal Bridges is still hoping to move forward to implement the deal with Fisk.

BACIGALUPI: I think that’s right. (Laughs.) The timing of this conversation is difficult because I’m not actually in the job yet.

LACAYO: Understood. On the larger question of acquiring works from institutions that are selling them for reasons that don’t conform to museum association guidelines — would you find it troubling to do that?

BACIGALUPI: It’s certainly not something I’ve had much experience with, and I don’t know that it’s been the practice off this museum to do so. It’s been the exception rather than the rule but it’s gotten a lot of attention.

LACAYO: Do you have an acquisitions budget yet, a specified amount that you can go out and spend every year?

BACIGALUPI: Not yet, no. The museum isn’t open yet so there are no firm numbers for any of that.

LACAYO: How do you see your job at Crystal Bridges as being different from what you’ve been doing at Toledo?

BACIGALUPI: In many ways it’ll be quite similar, because the visions of the two institutions are similar, the creation of a great collection and a great institution within a region that really needs and is eager for such a cultural institution. The difference is that Toledo has been around for 108 years and has had generations to refine that notion and has become a great success, in terms of the quality of the collection, the education programs and the participation of the community. Toledo is a city of 280,000 people and 430,000 come to the museum annually. By contrast, Crystal Bridges is in its infancy, but with the same ideas about what a museum can be as an educational institution, as a community player.

LACAYO: How do you get people to an out of the way location like Bentonville?

BACIGALUPI: This is already a great draw for business travelers. That’s one natural audience for us. And this part of the country, the Ozarks, is a very beautiful region that’s increasingly home to tourist destinations like Eureka Springs and Branson. I think Crystal Bridges will be a major spot along that trail for people to visit.