Beyond Picture Postcards: Crystal Bridges delves into art of American West

Beyond Picture Postcards: Crystal Bridges delves into art of American West

“Let’s Talk: Art of the West,” which remains open through Sept. 12 in the Early American Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, features six paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — five on loan from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., and one painting by Frederic Remington from the Crystal Bridges collection.

Mindy Besaw, director of research, fellowships and university partnerships and curator, American art; Rachel Lindsey, research and evaluation specialist; and Larissa Randall, curatorial associate, American art, collaboratively answered these six questions about the exhibit and its interactive aspects for What’s Up!

Q. How was this exhibit conceived? Obviously with the Gilcrease closed to build a new building, the timing is perfect.

A. We are so grateful to the Gilcrease Museum for loaning these paintings as well as a few other key works by Albert Bierstadt and Willard Stone for our collection galleries. Their willingness to lend as well as let us experiment with interpreting their collection is beyond generous, and we are so excited for their museum to reopen in 2025. This show is designed to test interpretive strategies and serve as a site for gathering guest feedback. Having these artworks at Crystal Bridges for such an extended period provides a unique opportunity to test real-world scenarios — discussing perspectives using real objects rather than just having conversations around small images of artworks. Guests are invited to respond to a prompt about their perception of the American West on Post-it notes and vote for which paintings, in their opinion, evoke words such as “truth,” “fantasy” and “colonial” using a variety of colored pom poms. Data gathered through guest feedback and focus group conversations will help inform interpretation for a future exhibition of art of the West.

Q. There’s the traditional, pro-expansion narrative of the West — and then there’s all the layers underneath it. When selecting art, what were the considerations for the pieces you wanted to show?

A. We selected 19th and 20th century works by settler artists, each depicting their imagined American West with a unique painting style. We wanted to present works that would be familiar to our audiences so that we could really test interpretive strategies for complicating “pro-expansion” narratives of the West. It is important to not only situate art of the West within the broader context of American art, but also to use these objects as tools for truth telling about how westward expansion benefited white communities and economies at the expense of Indigenous people.

Q. Is the idea of adding guest perceptions to the labels and other supporting material new to Crystal Bridges? If not, on what exhibit(s) has it been done before?

A. No, this isn’t new for us! We’ve been focused on the guest experience since we opened; it’s in Crystal Bridges’ mission to welcome all. We strive to be community-centered, and including the community in the development of exhibitions is part of our strategic plan. We’ve had a formal research and evaluation team focused on measuring engagement and impact since 2015. We track the overall guest experience and demographics throughout the year to understand the extent to which we are welcoming and representing our communities. This includes embedded research methods within numerous projects.

Sometimes at the beginning, front-end evaluation helps us answer questions like “What do our guests already know about this topic?” Sometimes evaluation is conducted at the end; summative evaluation allows us to understand if we met an exhibition’s goals around what guests will learn during their experience. Sometimes a project might have evaluation threaded throughout from beginning to end, such as with past temporary exhibitions “Border Cantos,” “Art for a New Understanding” and “Crafting America.”

Q. What do you hope the interactive aspect of the exhibit brings to the table as far as truth, perceptions, experiences, etc.?

A. We hope this exhibition will engage visitors, invite perspectives and inform future installations. The interactivity of voting and responding to the Post-it prompt is one way of learning about visitors’ thoughts and lived experiences. We’ll also be interviewing folks as they experience the space and will host a series of focus groups to collect even richer data through conversations with museum guests as well as Indigenous community members. We invite the community to visit Crystal Bridges this summer and share their perspective in “Let’s Talk!” to help inform future exhibitions.

Q. Tell us about your favorite piece of art in the exhibit, please. What do you see — and what is the context that you don’t necessarily see?

A. “Cowpuncher’s Lullaby” by Frederic Remington stands out as one of the favorite works from the collection. This painting is one of Remington’s many nocturnes, reflecting a monochromatic green color palette and somewhat blurred, distant representation of a cowboy on horseback singing to his herd. Remington’s stylistic choices imbue the painting with a nostalgic feeling of life in the West. Remington painted this nocturne in 1906 from his studios in New York after many trips to the West, where he traveled by train in relative comfort. We hope to emphasize the artistic skill of the painting, and also convey that these paintings are artistic representations rather than historical records. It is important to understand how nostalgia — and expectations of an eastern audience — shaped Remington’s art. By offering context for Remington and others in the gallery, we hope to encourage critical thinking and deeper understanding of how these works shaped perceptions of the West in the early 20th century that remain today.

Q. What pieces at Crystal Bridges currently showing as part of the permanent collection dovetail with this exhibition and what do they add to it?

A. One section of our permanent collection that really relates to this exhibition project is “The Myth of the Frontier” in the Early American Galleries. This section has evolved over the years and now includes a beautiful painted pair of hide carrying cases called “parfleche,” circa 1880, by an unrecorded Nakota or Aaniih (Gros Ventre) painter, placed in conversation with an 1855 painting, “The Buffalo Hunt” by John Mix Stanley. The pairing emphasizes the artistry and presence of Native peoples in the West — people Stanley met, asked to pose for his compositions, and even acquired objects from them for his collection.



‘Let’s Talk: Art of the West’

WHEN — Through Sept. 12

WHERE — Early American Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

COST — Free




At The Momentary

Two exhibitions at The Momentary, a sister art space to Crystal Bridges also located in Bentonville, add to the conversation taking place in “Let’s Talk: Art of the West,” points out spokeswoman Angel Horne.

“Let Earth Breathe,” a solo exhibition by Esteban Cabeza de Baca on show in the Momentary’s Lobby Gallery, “interrogates the American landscape tradition by deconstructing its linear, colonial narratives with original works of painting, sculpture, and outdoor, site-specific installations conceived as collaborations with nature. Utilizing indoor and outdoor spaces at the Momentary, Cabeza de Baca explores our relationship with the environment, the present climate crisis, and our own national history.”

“Let Earth Breathe” remains on show through Sept. 25. Admission is free.

Also showing through Sept. 25, “A Divided Landscape” lets seven contemporary artists “confront the historical and cultural narratives of the American West. Through paintings, drawings, sculpture, and mixed-media installations, this sweeping exhibition’s … themes encompass ideas of wilderness and indigeneity, interactions between humans and animals, and humans’ conquest of nature.

“‘A Divided Landscape’ includes original work from Matthew Barney, Andrea Carlson, Nicholas Galanin, Brian Jungen, Lucy Raven, Xaviera Simmons, and Kara Walker, as well as historical drawings and paintings from the collection at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, George Catlin, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and others that speak to the preservation of the dominant frontier narrative.”

Admission is free.


Categories: Galleries