This week Crystal Bridges celebrates welcoming our 2 millionth visitor.
Before the Museum opened, estimates at attendance were between 150,000 and 300,000 visitors a year. Since our opening in November, 2011, Crystal Bridges is welcoming around 500,000 visitors a year. Yes, right here in Bentonville, Arkansas.
There was skepticism from some contingents when Crystal Bridges was first announced. For folks living in the more cosmopolitan regions of the country, Arkansas might seem as far away as Albania, and every bit as foreign. But in truth the folks here are pretty much like the folks there, only with a different accent, an ability to appreciate okra and grits as key elements of the culinary oeuvre, and perhaps a slightly slower-paced lifestyle. These minor differences aside, it is clear we have one thing in common: a love of great art.
Crystal Bridges’ mission statement says “Crystal Bridges welcomes all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature.” The key word there, I think, is “welcomes.” This idea of welcoming everyone—both in the sense of facilitating access and of making people feel comfortable—is central to everything we do. When you start working at Crystal Bridges, you learn about a set of attributes we strive to embody: Welcoming, Invigorating, and Excellence. These are the impressions we want our guests to come away with. We take pride in making the experience of Crystal Bridges really remarkable: from the beautifully landscaped grounds and trails to the cup of coffee you sip at the coffee bar to the label copy next to your favorite work of art. That embodies the Invigorating and Excellence part. But it’s that Welcome that gets people in the door to enjoy those aspects, and it’s that Welcome that makes Crystal Bridges so unique and that has made it an integral part of our regional culture and our community.
Because of where Crystal Bridges is located, several hours away from the nearest major art museum, people come here who have never been to an art museum before… who maybe have never wanted to go to an art museum before, or perhaps felt as if museums in general, and art museums in particular, were meant for people with moneyed leisure time or initials in their resumes: PhD, MA, BS. But, of course, in reality, art is made by people for people. We all have the capacity and, I’d argue, the right to view and enjoy great works of art. Crystal Bridges recognizes that and has shaped its mission—and its success—around it.
At the State of the Art Summit last fall, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation and one of the panel members, referred to Crystal Bridges as “disruptive,” saying:
“I think Crystal Bridges is an enormously disruptive idea, and that’s why I’m excited about it and I’m on the edge of my chair here and I can’t sit back. It’s because this place is so innovative and is meant to create a new paradigm of how we think about art, how a patron thinks of arts patronage, and what we think—those of us who live in places like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco—of a place like Bentonville, Arkansas. “This museum could be the greatest museum anywhere in the world. It is an exemplary piece of architecture. The collection is phenomenal. And this current exhibition [State of the Art] totally challenges normative thinking of the elites on the east and west coast. And I think we really desperately need that kind of disruption in the art world.”
Maybe it’s the rebellious spark in my little editorial soul, but I love that idea of being disruptive: especially of being disruptive by being welcoming, inclusive, and democratic. It’s the kind of disruption this country was founded on: the revolutionary idea that all people were created equal.
Here we have a museum placed smack in the middle of America—full of American art that represents that revolutionary inclusive, optimistic, “it’s a free country” mindset that so marks the American character. It’s our job to fill that museum with people from all walks of life and all over the country and the world and tell them they’re welcome here; we want them here; and they deserve to be here. If that’s disruptive, I’m all for it!