Are We Not Worthy

by Gentry Lassiter
The battle is over and Arkansas and Alice Walton are on the losing end. Walton’s Crystal Bridges museum

in a joint venture with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., offered $68 million for what is reportedly now the most valuable pre-World War II painting by an American artist. But the bid was turned down after a controversial battle to keep the painting in Philadelphia.

Walton and the National Gallery made the offer to Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University medical school last year for the painting The Gross Clinic, but prominent Philadelphians rallied to keep the painting in Philadelphia, saying that it was a civic treasure that would contribute to Philadelphia becoming  “America’s Next Great City.”

Does this mean that Philadelphians believe that Bentonville, the future home of Crystal Bridges, should not be a candidate for “the next great city” in America?  Not really. But, the purchase of the painting would have been an important addition to the collection of American art to be housed at the museum founded by the Wal-Mart heiress. The purchase price of The Gross Clinic exceeds the estimated cost to build the 100,000 square feet Moshe Safdie designed museum, which is expected to open in 2009 on 100 acres in downtown Bentonville.

As part of the fundraising effort to keep the painting in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art issued a statement supporting the belief that the painting is an important part of Philadelphia history and culture. “Ten Reasons to Keep Thomas Eakins’ ‘The Gross Clinic’ in Philadelphia,” included the argument that the painting was created by a Philadelphian about a Philadelphian, embodied the principles of the city and the statement that, ‘If Philadelphia is to be America’s “Next Great City,’ it must protect the special qualities that residents prize and visitors seek, and remain inspired by the city’s tradition of excellence in art, science, and education, united in America’s greatest nineteenth-century painting, The Gross Clinic.

In response to the Pennsylvania art enthusiasts thwarting the purchase, Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery issued a short, two-line statement, saying: “We are disappointed that Eakins’ Gross Clinic will not be coming to the nation’s capital or America’s heartland. However, we are pleased for the city of Philadelphia.”

Whose loss?
Although Crystal Bridges expressed disappointment, how do Northwest Arkansas residents feel about the loss?

According to comments left on The Morning News website shortly after the announcement that the painting would not be coming to NWA, there seemed to be little concern over not having “The Gross Clinic” in Bentonville.

“What do we need with an art museum like that here?” one user asked.

Other posts indicated similar feelings. Some indicated that it is not that Arkansas shouldn’t have an art museum because its citizens are not cultured enough, but that citizens simply would have no interest in going to the museum.

Even University of Arkansas students seem unenthusiastic—or at least, uninformed about the museum.

“I would not go out of my way to go [to Crystal Bridges], but if I had nothing else to do, or if someone brought it up, I would go,” said UA senior Adam Prasse.

While the comments above are a skewed opinion of just a few residents, if residents do not think they would visit the art museum, is it an indication that we are not cultured enough to have a museum of this caliber?

The question raised by this situation is whether Northwest Arkansas is ready for an art museum of Crystal Bridges’ magnitude.  Although many believe that it would be a stereotypical insult to the region, the answer to this question could very well be “no.”  Few people in this region are familiar with The Gross Clinic, much less the controversy over Crystal Bridges’ failed acquisition of the painting.

Local tourism, chamber of commerce officials and art patrons have lauded the museum as an important asset that will draw more visitors to NWA. But, in a series of casual interviews conducted with Fayetteville residents, those who understood the impact and magnitude of Crystal Bridges were in the stark minority. Many of those interviewed were University of Arkansas students, who would normally be considered most up-to-date on current events and intellectual hot-points in their area.

This could mean that Crystal Bridges has not been referenced by local newspapers and television stations often enough. However, if Northwest Arkansas residents are truly enthused by the addition of a new art museum, should it matter how frequently it is discussed in the media?

On the other hand, since many notable real estate brokers have labeled Northwest Arkansas as one of the fastest growing areas in the country, there may be an influx of art-savvy museum patrons who will enthusiastically welcome Crystal Bridges. But, it is arguable whether there will be enough people with time to peruse the museum.

If the administrators of Crystal Bridges want to contribute to the education of locals by providing them with a collection of prominent artwork, they may have an uphill battle to fight in getting the message to the masses.

Although most of those interviewed are mainly unaware of the museum at this point, University of Arkansas students will benefit from a museum of this caliber being located just a few miles away to help develop their cultural awareness. And, since enrollment at the university is increasing every year, a more educated and art-enthused audience for art establishments is potentially being produced. If these students regularly peruse the walls of Crystal Bridges, the museum’s popularity among the permanent residents could increase as well.

A major art museum in Northwest Arkansas could be a catalyst for residents to become more interested in art, but so far, people who live in this area know relatively little about Crystal Bridges or the art that it is to house. Although the museum could very well spark an upheaval of art enthusiasts, in order for that to occur, the museum will have to more aggressively publicize its collection and intentions to the residents of Northwest Arkansas.

The Gross Clinic story
Eakins produced “The Gross Clinic” in 1875, which depicts a prominent Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel Gross, performing surgery on a boy’s leg with attendants present. Alumni of the Thomas Jefferson University medical school purchased the painting in 1878 for $200. It has been displayed at the school in a small remote gallery and has remained out of the spotlight until the recent bids for its purchase by Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art protested the purchase bid of $68 million by Crystal Bridges and the National Gallery and led the fundraising drive to match the asking price. The Pennsylvania protestors were given until December 26 of last year to raise the money to purchase the painting. The museum and the academy managed to raise $30 million through fundraising efforts and procured loans from Wachovia Bank to cover the rest of the cost of the painting just days before the deadline.

Most of the controversy surrounding the Bentonville art museum’s bid for the painting dealt was the concern that the painting would be moved from Philadelphia. Many Philadelphians were concerned that a painting produced by an artist from Philadelphia would be taken from the city that they want to become the “next great city in America.”

However, the controversy over moving the painting—which has now achieved “civic treasure” status—from Philadelphia to Arkansas was not the only controversy surrounding the deal. Jefferson University medical school had to quash negative outcry from Philadelphians who accused the institution of selling the painting to raise funds for something as mundane as university expansion.

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