Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s multicultural bent — including its decision to rehang its galleries to include works by Native American artists — has the Washington Post asking if it is the “most woke museum in America?”

How about that? If the answer is yes, the most socially aware museum in America is in Bentonville, Arkansas, and we have Alice Walton to thank for it. Who would have predicted that?

Phillip Kennicott, the Post writer, after talking to CBM Curator of American Art Mindy Besaw, comes away with the idea that it was the excited response of the museum’s patrons — us Arkansans — to contemporary art that helped Walton shake things up a bit. (We’d add that her work with former Director Don Bacigalupi had some influence as well.)

This insight into the museum’s audience, along with a sense that the museum needed a more flexible strategy than its original, encyclopedic approach, has led to ongoing changes at Crystal Bridges. The early American galleries are closed for renovation and will be opened with works by Native American artists intermixed with the original painting collection. Perhaps the most notable change, however, is the astonishing mix of work by artists who are not white men throughout the museum. In a large gallery of recent and contemporary work, one finds work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Vanessa German, Mary Ann Currier, Tara Donovan, Susan Rothenberg, Titus Kaphar and Mark Tansey.

This may be the most “woke” room in any mainstream American museum today, with works by Native American, African American and female artists far outnumbering the only work by a white man, Tansey’s virtuosic sepia-toned “landscape” of broken and toppled ancient statuary. But it’s not the crude metrics or race and gender that matter, rather, it’s the utterly new narrative of contemporary art that emerges from the museum’s conscious and thorough effort at inclusivity. And this applies not just to the identity of the artists on view, but to the kind of work they make, as well. Painting may not, in fact, be dead after all, nor figuration, to judge by the many fine contemporary works included in the museum’s expanding permanent collection.

The Kaphar work mentioned in the Post article, “The Cost of Removal,” is based on a painting of President Andrew Jackson, who forced the nation’s eastern tribes off their lands and removed them to Oklahoma. Kaphar has nailed strips of cloth to Jackson’s face. Crystal Bridges describes the painting this way:

The nails reference an African ritual of hammering nails into objects of adoration or spiritual significance. Each nail represents an individual that has put their faith into the object in question. The torn pieces of canvas are strips containing Andrew Jackson’s own words as he considers displacing Native Americans from their land. Jackson ended up signing the 1831 Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced relocation of Native people into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi River. The route that these 15- to 16,000 Indigenous people forcibly traversed—called the Trail of Tears — is about 2,200 miles long and resulted in the death of an estimated three to four thousand people. 

Two of the Trail of Tears routes, of course, passed through Northwest Arkansas.

The Native American exhibition referred to in the Post article opens Oct. 6; its working title is “Native North America” and it will include 75 works from the 1950s to today, including painting, drawing, photography, video, sound, installation and performance art. It’s being curated by Canadian Candice Hopkins (Tlingit), Besaw and Manuela Well-Off-Man, chief curator at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and formerly with Crystal Bridges.

The Post article will make the cynic wonder if the writer was so shocked to see work by Basquiat and Marshall in Arkansas that his characterization of “woke” is comparative to the culture here. Here’s what he says about museums and audiences:

Critics, too, often fall into the trap of making assumptions about audiences. We use them as a straw man to amplify our sense of surprise or delight or disappointment. The audience, we think, is stuck in its ways, which is why we were pleased to see a museum take chances. Or, more often, the audience wanted what it always wants, and the institution gave it to them, and what a pity. The easy headline for any story about Crystal Bridges, which sits in a small city in a rural part of a conservative state, is that it must somehow be out of place in Arkansas, always sailing against the prevailing winds of local taste.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The museum took chances from the beginning and is taking bigger ones now, including hosting a bracing but beautiful exhibition devoted to art of the Black Power era. And there seems to be a synergy between the risks taken, and the engagement of the audience. When a piece by the prominent gay Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was installed, Besaw remembers a colleague saying of the audience: “They’re coming along with us. We’re learning, growing, shaping.”

There’s wisdom in that, simple, but too often opaque to museum leaders. Audiences are made, not found, and you inevitably get the audience you deserve.