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Complex Design Complements Natural Location

Posted: November 5, 2011 at noon

A man walks Thursday on a path at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville. Alice Walton chose Moshe Safdie to design the museum after visiting an earlier project of his, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. “As you start moving through the museum, it’s constantly alternating between the art and the framing of nature for you,” Safdie said.

— The pair of suspended-cable pavilions that span a ravine is home to two spring-fed ponds, resulting in the illusion they’re floating on water.

The structures, one a gallery and the other a restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, feature roofing consisting of alternating bands of copper and glass.

Those familiar with the museum’s architectural renderings over the years may remember the promise of a nighttime glow for the museum’s buildings, particularly for these glass-walled expanses with the gloriously pin-striped roofs that combine elements of both bridges and skywalks.

The roofing is beautiful in daylight as well, and as time goes on, patrons will have the opportunity to watch it age.

The copper stripes etched in the museum’s pavilions gleam in the sunlight like the sheen of a freshly minted penny.

“Copper has a natural patination process,” Don Bacigalupi, the museum’s executive director, said, referring to oxidation and other weather processes. Like copper coins, “It will become brown pretty soon.”

Over years, nature’s paintbrush will result in a “verdigris” effect, Sandy Edwards, deputy director of museum relations, said.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this advanced oxidation effect is the green patina the Statue of Liberty has attained over time.

Though the setting of Crystal Bridges looks deceptively rural, city and tourism officials have said it sits squarely in downtown Bentonville and, indeed, visitors who enter from the Compton Gardens entrance near the Bentonville Square don’t have far to walk to reach the museum campus.

Reflecting its theme of art intersecting with nature, the museum is interconnected through a series of 10 buildings nestled in the ravine, which dissects divides 120 forested acres, and visitors can explore a 3-mile network of walking trails featuring historic springs, blooming tree groves, outdoor sculptures and remnants of a never-built railroad.

The museum is tucked into the ravine such that, for a visitor standing anywhere near its pavilions, vistas in all directions reminds him he is always situated below the tree line.

“So if there’s a battle between architecture and nature, you know who’s winning,” Bacigalupi said.

Five of the museum’s eight pavilions are galleries that will house the museum’s permanent collection — spanning roughly five centuries of American masterworks from Colonial times to present day — in gallery spaces designed with unusual geometric shapes.

The first gallery includes paintings from the Colonial Era through 1860 including colonial portraiture, genre painting and Hudson River School landscapes, according to the museum.

The second gallery includes paintings of Realism, Impressionism, Tonalism and the Aesthetic Movement from 1865-1900.

The third will feature small, changing exhibitions, and the fourth features paintings from the Ash Can School to American Modernism. The fifth gallery includes paintings from Post-World War II art movements, such as: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism and New American Realism.

A sixth gallery is for temporary exhibitions or traveling exhibitions organized by other institutions that highlight themes, artists and periods from the museum’s collection.

Bacigalupi said a lone gallery within one of the museum’s “floating” pavilions is home to the 20th century works in Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection, giving visitors a glimpse of art ranging from the realist tradition to Impressionism to abstract, and which are displayed under beams made of pine from the Arkansas town of Magnolia.

David Burghart, project manager with Crystal Bridges, called the design effort that went into them an “engineering feat.”

“It’s truly a suspension building,” Bacigalupi said of the cabling.

The design is similar to that of a classic suspension bridge, except the cabling is holding up the roof and not the bridge flooring.

“It’s the first time it’s ever been done as a suspension roof,” Burghart said. “I think what happened was, when [museum architect] Moshe Safdie saw Sam and Helen Waltons’ house and saw they had a bridge, he was inspired.”

Case Dighero, the museum’s food and beverage director, said the restaurant called Eleven will offer full service for dinner and brunch, and what he called a “demi-service” for lunch, in which patrons pay for their food and take it to the table themselves.

“We’re an American art museum, so of course the fare [is] Americana,” Dighero said, adding that means inspired by American cooking or even Southern cooking, but with a twist.

The museum features a 50,000-item research library housed on the top level of Crystal Bridges’ only three-story structure.

The museum will reach out to two distinct audiences: the public and the schools, said Catherine Petersen, the library’s director.

The public programs aims to help museum guests learn more about Crystal Bridges’ collection and Arkansas art. This will include a menu of daily and annual events such as tours, films, lectures and workshops as well as the library’s special collections.

If a scholar wants to view a rare book, the museum will have white gloves, page-turning spatulas and study carrels for his use, Petersen said. With some of the rarer books, only pencils will be allowed in the study area.

The school programs will provide curriculum-based programming for all ages of pupils, students and scholars. These will include offerings similar to the public program’s but also learning via technology and professional development for educators.

The museum is gathering selected new and out-of-print books for the library, she said.

“We are non-circulating, which means we do not check out,” Petersen said.

Crystal Bridges has roughly 500 artworks in its collection, and the museum has loaned some of its artwork to other institutions throughout the world. In doing so, it has formed partnerships that will allow it to display artworks from international museums, traveling exhibitions and private collections.

The museum’s galleries will differ in size and color in accordance with the kinds of works they will house.

For instance, there’s a narrow, long space within one gallery designed to hold smaller drawings near a much grander space that will hold large masterworks.

And the gallery for temporary and traveling exhibitions was designed with constant change in mind.

“This will be the most dynamic space in the museum,” said David Houston, Crystal Bridges’ director of curatorial.

That, and the size of modern works.

“A lot of contemporary artists really work with scale,” he said.

Houston and Rod Bigelow, the museum’s deputy director of operations and administration, said they expect the temporary gallery will change out exhibitions three to four times a year.

This article was previously published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on May 8, 2011.

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