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Big moments for museum on horizon, curator says.

On May 23, 2005, when Alice Walton formally unveiled her plans for an art museum in Bentonville, the project was put at $50 million and the museum was expected to open in May 2009.

Now, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art can spend almost $50 million on a single artwork--it bought Georgia O'Keeffe's "Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1" for $44.4 million at Sotheby's in November, more than three times the previous record for a work by a woman artist.

And it didn't open until Nov. 11, 2011. But when it did the reviews were mostly rapturous, so no one seemed to mind that it took longer than expected or that the building alone is worth more than $220 million.

As for the collection itself and the museum endowment? That value exceeds $1 billion.

Throughout the last decade, the museum has cycled through executive directors--it's on its third, though its second, Don Bacigalupi, remains on the museum's board--and curatorial staff.

Margaret "Margi" Conrads said that turnover isn't surprising. Conrads, who joined the museum in March as director of curatorial affairs, said that almost four years after opening, Crystal Bridges remains, to a degree, in startup mode.

"In any kind of business startup there are jobs that at certain moments need to be done," she said. Once those jobs are completed, people move on.

Formally, Conrads is tasked with "providing strategic vision for design and development" of the museum's permanent collection and exhibitions. Informally, she's first among equals on the team developing the museum's collection development plan.

And though Conrads' views about what artworks the museum should acquire--the direction the collection should take--are likely to receive great consideration, she stresses that "we are a very collaborative gang. And so it's hard to talk about it just in terms of me, my work, my group's work."

Crystal Bridges, Conrads said in a recent interview at the museum, is "at the cusp of a really exciting moment." The museum sits atop--metaphorically speaking--an "incredible foundation" of an architecturally important building, top-notch staff and "fabulous collection," Conrads said. "So we--and particularly the strategic team that I'm a member of--it is our charge to envision how we move forth into the 21st century."

It's easy--and lazy--to see Crystal Bridges as Alice Walton's art consignment shop, the place that houses the works the Wal-Mart heiress has grown tired of viewing at home. Instead, the museum, as Conrads and other museum officials have made clear over the years, operates along business lines.

Rod Bigelow, who became executive director in February 2013 and had previous experience as chief financial officer at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington, told Arkansas Business in May 2013 that "even though we are a nonprofit arts organization, we are still a business that has to achieve specific goals, balance a budget and create stellar learning experiences."

'Destiny'

Conrads said her hiring by Crystal Bridges seemed like something fated. She has known Alice Walton for 10 years. They met when Conrads was working at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was the Samuel Sosland senior curator of American art.

"At the time, Alice was really taking her idea of Crystal Bridges from the vision toward reality," Conrads said. The Nelson-Atkins was in the midst of a transformation with the construction the Bloch Building, and architect Moshe Safdie, who went on to design Crystal Bridges, was designing the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, "so there were reasons for Alice to come and have conversations in Kansas City."

Around the same time, Conrads was working to redesign and reinstall the Nelson-Atkins' American art collection, and she went on to become a member of the team of art historians who contributed to Crystal Bridges' inaugural publication, "Celebrating the American Spirit."

And, of course, the museum world is a small and collegial one. "To be honest, I think in my heart--and Alice and I have had this conversation--I think we both knew sometime it was going to be the collective destiny that I come here," Conrads said.

In the meantime, however, she had moved on from the Nelson-Atkins to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where she was deputy director of art and research.

But by this year, the timing was right for Conrads to make the move to Crystal Bridges.

'A Tremendous Foundation'

Conrads was raised in the Washington, D.C., area, but her family was not a museum-going one. She does remember, however, "standing in line to see the Mona Lisa when it visited." That 1963 exhibition was momentous. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy helped arrange the one-picture loan of the world's most famous smile by the French government to the president of the United States and the American people. It was the first time the painting had been loaned to another country.

Conrads entered Emory University in Atlanta with plans to be a large-animal veterinarian, but a college abroad program exposed her to art history. "I found something that I thought was way more fun than physics and calculus," she said.

After earning a master's in art history from Washington University in St. Louis, Conrads worked at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, which exposed her to the museum world. She eventually found her way to New York, where she landed a job at a leading art gallery, the Pace Gallery.

Conrads spent much of the 1980s in New York, a particularly vibrant era in a particularly vibrant place that saw the rise of high-profile artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons. (A Jeff Koons sculpture, the 3,000-pound Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), now hangs in Crystal Bridges' restaurant, Eleven. The museum didn't reveal a purchase price, but an almost identical piece, Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), sold in 2007 for a reported $23.6 million.)

"I look back on that experience and realize what a tremendous foundation it gave me," she said. "First at the Delaware Art Museum I got that real first understanding of the museum world. At Pace I got to understand how the art world worked."

Not Afghanistan

At Crystal Bridges, Conrads can bring all her skills and knowledge to bear. And as someone who's spent her career in Middle America, she does not share the unfavorable opinion of the Bentonville area voiced by Kevin Murphy, who was the museum's curator of American art until leaving in 2013 for Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Murphy had some cutting things to say about both the museum and northwest Arkansas. Lee Rosenbaum, writer of the arts blog CultureGrll, talked to Murphy soon after his Crystal Bridges departure. "In a university setting, Murphy now has the chance to devise the intellectually stimulating exhibitions that mostly eluded him at Crystal Bridges," Rosenbaum wrote.

In addition, "Describing Northwest Arkansas, tongue-in-cheek, as 'the Afghanistan of curatorial posts,' Murphy told me he was 'still recovering from the post-traumatic stress of that place.'"

Conrads, asked about Murphy's remarks, responded:

"Is living in Bentonville like New York? No. but it's not meant to be, and those who choose to live here and make it their home enjoy those differences."

As for the museum, she said, "In any kind of business startup there are jobs that at certain moments need to be done. You get the team in that can do them best. And sometimes, both the job and the team members evolve into something else. And I think that's what our story has been.

"It's been most visible in curatorial because we tend to be the face of the institution."

Balancing popular exhibitions and artworks with "intellectually stimulating exhibitions" and scholarship is not that hard, Conrads said. "This is maybe another reason why Crystal Bridges was interested in me. Since the beginning of my curatorial practice, I have been committed to not seeing those as different things," she said. "I believe that any project can both be a contribution to the field and be accessible."

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art "has helped a wide swath of people lose some of their provincialism," Conrads said, not necessarily talking about museum-goers in mid-America.

"It is so interesting, for the Jamie Wyeth opening last week as an example--I was walking through the galleries quite a bit because I was with the organizers of the show. And my Boston colleague, who I adore, who'd never been here before, I loved watching her watch what was going on in the galleries.

"She said, 'I had heard it was great, but this is amazing.' And part of it was that diversity, because the diversity is not just ethnic diversity. It is class. It is chronological. It is all of those different ways.

"My personal philosophy around art is that art provides a gathering place. And it provides opportunities for transformation. Making that experience possible for anyone no matter what they bring to the experience--that's what we're about."

By Jan Cottingham

JCottingham@ABPG.com

[PHOTO BY BETH HALL]

Caption: Margi Conrads: "I think in my heart--and Alice and I have had this conversation--I think we both knew sometime it was going to be the collective destiny that I come here."
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Author:Cottingham, Jan
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 10, 2015
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