Jewish World Review May 30, 2005 / 21 Iyar 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Art world in a tizzy | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Michael Kimmelman is unhappy with us here in Arkansas. I know how deeply that piece of news will disturb folks in these parts. Indeed, their first, alarmed reaction may be:

Who the heck is Michael Kimmelman?

Well, Michael Kimmelman, I'll have you know, is the art critic of the once august New York Times, and, to be accurate, which always takes some of the fun out of things for a journalist, Mr. Kimmelman is not so much upset with us in Arkansas as he is with the venerable New York Public Library.

As you may have heard, the NYPL has let Alice Walton, she of the Arkansas Waltons, as in Wal-Marts, spirit off one of New York's great treasures to the distant Ozarks, a region apparently somewhere west of the Hudson.

The treasure is Asher B. Durand's 1849 classic of the Hudson River School, "Kindred Spirits," which depicts poet, journalist and visionary William Cullen Bryant standing on a ledge in the Catskills with his friend, the artist Thomas Cole. You can't hardly get more Genteel 19th Century New York than that.

And now the New York Public Library is selling its local treasure — not to a respectable outfit like the Metropolitan just up Fifth Avenue, but to a little lady in the remote mountain fastnesses of Arkansas.

Shocking. It's as if Alice Walton had kidnapped Eustace Tilley right off the annual Spring cover of The New Yorker.

Mr. Kimmelman lays into the library not for auctioning off the painting but for selling it to someone outside New York. Parochialism, thy name is the New York art world. The Times' art critic writes as if the Metropolitan itself weren't already bursting with the national patrimonies of assorted foreign locales, from Egyptian artifacts to French impressionists. The man is bereft of a sense of irony. It's as if the curator of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, those reflections of the glory that was Greece, were to complain that crass Americans were buying up the best art in England.

Mr. Kimmelman decries the sale of this masterpiece to "a big-name American billionaire." Indeed, he sounds ready to give up on our whole nation of philistines: "In America, celebrity and money are the measuring sticks of cultural value." You'd think he'd never heard of the celebrated tycoons — the Fricks, Rockefellers and Guggenheims — who made New York the capital of American art. But even in their case it wasn't their money that made them memorable but what they did with it. Now Alice Walton is doing something great with hers here in Arkansas, like buying "Kindred Spirits" for her dream made real, Crystal Bridges.To judge from the renowned Moshe Safdie's stunning drawings, it's going to be an Alhambra updated for the 21st century: Dams and bridges cross a natural ravine, forming two spacious, peaceful pools of pure, clear Arkansas water. And all around will rise galleries, courtyards, promenades, a Great Hall and other gathering places, all set within 120 unspoiled acres of parkland.

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And what splendid works of art will be displayed in this work of art! A whole range of great American paintings is now headed for Arkansas:

Winslow Homer's "Spring" and George Bellows' "The Knock-Out" and Fairfield Porter's "October Interior" and Marsden Hartley's "Hall of the Mountain King" and . . . so many more, with Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keefe on deck and who knows how many others in the hole. There are still years of collecting to come.

What impresses most about Crystal Bridges is the personal vision it embodies. And what impresses most about Alice Walton is that she isn't afraid of popular taste or her own. But leave it to a New York art dealer to miss that point. "These are icons of American art," said Betty Krulik. "Every one. It seems like they are getting amazing advice."

Amazing advice? Yeah, that may be part of it. But it also used be said that Isabella Stewart Gardner was just following Bernard Berenson's advice when, at the turn of another century, she put together what till now may have been the most distinctively, delightfully personal museum in America — the Gardner in Boston's Fenway.

But when Mrs. Gardner's correspondence came to light years later, it became clear that she was often guiding Berenson. Never underestimate the power of a woman. The most amazing thing about this vision soon to rise in the hills of Arkansas is Alice Walton. For what the dream says most about is the dreamer.

It's not just what this dreamer is building that impresses, but what she's destroying: this small Southern state's inferiority complex. It's fading so lightly and quickly that, thanks to visionaries like Alice Walton, we may not even notice when it's gone.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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