The Museum of Modern Art in New York is making a splash with a new exhibition strategy people will see when the remodeled and expanded MoMA reopens Oct. 21. Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series No. 20: Die,” a two-panel painting of blood-spattered shooting victims, is paired with Pablo Picasso’s “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon,” his Cubist image of five unsmiling, even masked, women. Henri Matisse’s beloved childlike painting “Red Studio” is paired with Alma Woodsey Thomas’ abstract “Fiery Sunset.” The pairings put the artists on the same footing, giving two African-American women artists their due. A writer in the New York Times said the museum will “reveal itself to be a living, breathing 21st-century institution, rather than the monument to obsolete history — white, male and nationalist — that it has become over the years since its founding in 1929.”
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art got there first.
At its founding eight years ago, the Bentonville museum also presented American art in a conventional, linear way, opening with the Hudson River Valley School. But Crystal Bridges quickly became unmired in the conventional, hanging Nan Ward’s 27-foot-long wall sculpture spelling “We the People” in colorful shoelaces, a medium reflecting the commonplace and community, in its reinstalled early American gallery on President’s Day 2018. In the gallery, Gilbert Stuart’s 1797 portrait of George Washington hung next to a 19th century beaded Native American cradleboard and Susie Lee’s 2013 video portrait of an oil worker. The 18th century portraits of the Franks family of New York met the 20th century “Florida Mexicana” by Alfredo Ramos Martinez. The arrangement prompted the Washington Post to declare the gallery as possibly “the most ‘woke’ room in any mainstream American museum today” with “an utterly new narrative of contemporary art that emerges from the museum’s conscious and thorough effort at inclusivity.”
It was that purposeful curatorial goal — hinted at from the very start with founder Alice Walton’s focus on women artists — that attracted new chief curator Austen Barron Bailly to the Bentonville museum. “I really do feel Crystal Bridges is leading the charge to a much more holistic vision,” Bailly said. It’s one where people of the many different ethnicities that make up the American family can see themselves represented on the walls.
Bailly, a native of Louisiana, holds a doctorate in art history from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She came to Crystal Bridges from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where she was the George Putnam Curator of American Art. She previously was an associate curator at the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum (LACMA). She heads a relatively new curatorial team of seven at Crystal Bridges (Mindy Besaw, the most tenured member, joined in 2014), a staff she said is “so open to where this museum can go.”
One focus will be on expanding the collection of art by women, who are scandalously underrepresented in museums. One survey of art purchases by museums over the past decade found that only 11 percent were works by women.
Bailly is also interested in works by indigenous artists. Shortly after the “We The People” redo of the galleries in 2018, Besaw, former Crystal Bridges curator Manuela Well-Off-Man and independent curator Candice Hopkins joined to create “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” at Crystal Bridges. The show, which featured works by 40 native artists from the U.S. and Canada, was recently praised as “groundbreaking” by the director of Duke University’s Nasher Museum, where it is now on exhibit. Such collecting will be done in consultation with native communities, Bailly said.
The museum’s recent acquisitions meant to stimulate conversation about subjects such as race and sexism include “Portrait of a Florentine” by Kehinde Wiley, the New York artists who places African-American figures in larger-than-life heroic settings and who painted President Obama’s portrait. The painting substitutes Shontay Haynes of St. Louis for the nobleman featured in the 16-century portrait. Jordan Casteel’s “Ourlando” features a dapper African-American man standing in front of a wall of shelves of men’s shirts; Loie Hollowell made no bones, Bailly said, about the sexual nature of her hard-edge abstraction “Mother’s Milk.” Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s “Dave Forsythe” is an exquisite-corpse-style portrait depicting the complicated nature of his subject, the leg in high heels, the face a composite of man and beast.
The new works hang in the contemporary art gallery next to Roger Shimomura’s painting “Block Dance Break No. 1,” an image of a woman in a Japanese internment camp beneath a sign indicating “Women,” the W partially obscured to read “omen.” When it appeared in Shimomura’s 2010 exhibition “Minidoka on My Mind,” the artist wrote that his work was a “metaphor for the impending threat posed by current times” in a nation that forgets its past mistakes.
Crystal Bridges has also acquired works by self-taught African-American artists, including Sam Doyle and Clementine Hunter, as part of a group of 23 artworks from the collection of Los Angeles art collector and scholar Gordon W. Bailey. The Doyle work is “Dr. Crow,” a painting on a scrap of corrugated sheet metal of what appears to be a snake handler; the Hunter painting is “Baptism,” a primitive oil on board. Other outsider works from the Gordon W. Bailey acquisition: Thornton Dial’s multimedia “Cocaine Dog,” Josephus Farmer’s wood bas relief “Behold the Lamb of God,” and Herbert Singleton’s 6-foot-tall carved and painted tree stump “Tree of Death.” The pieces are not yet on view.
“State of the Art II,” Crystal Bridges’ follow-up show to SOTA I, will also introduce contemporary artists from around the country working in all mediums and from differing backgrounds. It will be shown both at the Walton family-founded Momentary performing and arts space in Bentonville and at Crystal Bridges starting in February 2020. The 60 artists chosen for the exhibition will be announced at the end of October.
After the museum opened, “Everybody was waiting to see what Crystal Bridges would do,” Bailly said. And over the years, how quickly it has transformed the mission to welcome all, to create access to great art, and to a much more holistic vision about to actually changing what museums can be.” That vision includes diversifying from within, in its hiring policies, to demonstrate “who can work” in museums, Bailly said. And, she said, “People are paying attention.”