Story by Deb Peterson
Rachael Spiegel left Fayetteville to study art at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She came home with her Bachelor of Science in Photography and a dream of pursuing an art career in New York.
Instead, at just 24, she found the opportunity of a lifetime in her own backyard—a job sought after by New Yorkers.
“Tears well up when I work with some of the art,” Rachael says. “I have studied [these works] in books, but to see them in person, I have gasped.”
Rachael’s gasp is what the power of art is all about—the ability of an image to elicit an emotional reaction that touches us so deeply we can’t find words to express what we feel. All we can do is gasp or recoil or smile. Through an image, one of our earliest forms of communication, we have shared something common about the human experience that gives us pause. Our daily chaos disappears, and in that moment, life has added meaning.
Rachael’s gasp is why it’s important that great art is coming to the heart of America.
On 11/11/11, you can experience your own personal reaction to great works of art when Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens in Bentonville, Arkansas, the first of its magnitude in the heartland.
The museum is a gift from Alice Walton, heiress to the Walton fortune, who has been criticized for buying significant pieces of American Art and bringing them to Arkansas. In keeping with her desire to make art accessible to everyone, she has granted only four interviews, preferring that the Crystal Bridges story be about the people who are bringing the museum to life, not about her.
I had the privilege of meeting six of these people—Sandy Edwards, deputy director, museum relations, and the women in collections management who have been some of the first and only people to see Alice’s collection. Rachael and her coworkers have the responsibility of documenting every piece and ensuring its proper care, handling, and movement.
They may be the youngest collections management staff in history to open a museum of this significance, and they are acutely aware of their part in American history.
Assistant Registrar Aleesha Nissen, 26, came to Crystal Bridges from Brooklyn, New York. “I’ve already had the opportunity to do things my friend at the Met hasn’t been able to do. This is all brand new. It’s our baby.”
Elizabeth Weinman is the museum’s registrar. “I have the job now that I hoped to have by the time I was 40. I had it at 28.”
Sarah Vincent, collections information specialist, is 24. She’s from Ottawa, Canada originally, but is a graduate of Fayetteville High School and the University of Arkansas.
She knows how significant Crystal Bridges is to her community.
“I am so thrilled about what this museum will mean for the university,” she says. “This is a place of learning. People will leave our exhibits different for having seen this art and will live their lives differently as a result.”
Sarah says her experience of uncrating art and hanging it on the wall, of learning about the individual pieces, has changed her, and she’s sure it will have a similar effect on others.
“It’s completely different than looking at pictures in a book,” she says. “With Crystal Bridges here, you don’t have to live in a big city to have access to great art.”
The size of the art, and the detail, are what strike Elizabeth.
Aleesha agrees. “The Lantern Bearers for example,” she says. “People say the lanterns glow. They really do.”
“And to get our hands on it…” Elizabeth says.
“Our gloved hands,” adds Jennifer De Martino, assistant registrar.
The mention of a specific work animates the women, eliciting excitement. Their eyes shine.
“We’re excited to introduce the rest of the staff to the collection,” Jennifer says.
Elizabeth has enjoyed walking framers and conservators into the galleries. “Their jaws drop,” she says with a smile. “And artists find the museum refreshing. They say how nice everybody is.”
Jennifer loves that one of the strongest themes in the museum is women’s art. “Not only as subjects but as artists,” she says. “For those of us who have raised our children here and have had to justify Arkansas to others, this is a cultural asset.”
Jennifer, 35, and her husband came to Arkansas from Florida for graduate school.
“I put my career on hold to raise my family,” she says. “Crystal Bridges gave me the fantastic realization that I can live where I want and have the job I want.”
Because of her own experience, Jennifer finds meaning in Maria Oakey Dewing’s 1901 painting, Rose Garden. She says it reminds her of the struggle women still face in balancing family and work.
“Dewey gave up figure painting when she married her prominent figure-painter husband, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and gave birth to their daughter,” Jennifer says. “While Maria found success with her garden paintings, she regretted her decision to cease painting figures in landscapes and felt she had not achieved enough with her career because of that sacrifice.”
Jennifer experienced what Dennis J. Sporre wrote in his book, The Creative Impulse, “…new scientific theory explodes the old, new art does not invalidate earlier human expression. Obviously, not all artistic styles survive, but Picasso cannot do to Rembrandt what the theories of Einstein did to those of Newton. Works of art remain, in a curious way, always in the present.”
Whether you relate to the experience of a fellow human being through a painting or sculpture, or delight in the surprise of something completely unexpected, Crystal Bridges promises to change how you see the world around you.
M! October/November 2011
Crystal Bridges gallery: