A s board chair for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Olivia Walton could not be better placed to enthuse about the value of art and the importance of making it accessible to all. Since November, she has presided over the Arkansas-based non-profit organisation that boasts a permanent free-to-view collection spanning five centuries of American art and an extensive education engagement programme that sees more than 50,000 schoolchildren visit each year.
Founded by Alice Walton in 2011, Crystal Bridges is dedicated to "making art part of everyone’s everyday life". The museum and its vast grounds – it sits in 120 acres of forest and gardens – is matched by its far-reaching scope, using the arts to reach into every part of life and community from health, food, education, travel, lifestyle and hospitality.
Ahead of her attendance at the Venice Biennale, as Sotheby's guest of honor, Olivia tells us why or understanding of arts and culture needs to evolve and expand and of the fundamental role art plays in communities and in particular in the lives of children.
As the recently appointed Chair of Crystal Bridges, what are your personal ambitions to advance the cause of youngsters in the heartland of the US?
I grew up in New York City with ample access to art institutions and different types of art, and that access shaped me and how I view the world. When Crystal Bridges opened its doors over ten years ago, it provided that same opportunity to so many children and adults in this region. Alice has a beautiful saying that I think captures the ethos. She says, “If you have access to art, you have access to imagination. And if you have imagination, you have hope.”
'We love reaching people outside our walls – whether it's outdoors, out in the community or virtually. We’re looking for depth of engagement and we want to be creative about what that looks like'
As we think about the next ten years and beyond, we’re focusing on expanding the definition of art and what that means to our community and to its visitors. For young people, I’m especially excited about our plans to build a four acre outdoor art, education and play area that’s connected to the incredible trail system in Bentonville, Arkansas. This expansion to our grounds will provide even more opportunities for children and families to experience the museum in a new way. We love reaching people outside our walls – whether it's outdoors, out in the community or virtually. We’re looking for depth of engagement and we want to be creative about what that looks like.
In particular, how can the arts act as an economic driver to improving children’s lives?
Arts and culture represent 4.5% of the U.S. economy – that’s more than transportation or construction. Crystal Bridges alone has added $350 million to our regional economy, according to a study from the American Alliance of Museums. The arts are a key ingredient to the incredible quality of life here in Bentonville. We are creating jobs (over 300 staff across Mo and CB), drawing tourists (720,000 people in 2019) and it’s a cultural amenity that’s an important part of why Bentonville is the fifth fastest growing city in the U.S. and ranked in the top five best places to live. So, the arts generate growth and when the economy is growing there are so many more resources to support children. Plus, we know that, especially in children, access to the arts supports well-being, cognitive development, and community connectedness. It’s hard to put a price on those benefits.
You have spoken about the need to widen the definition of art to include a broader spectrum of creativity. Why is it important to do this?
Expanding the definition of art is so important to stay relevant and maximize our impact now and well into the future. We can’t be elitist about it. We are witnessing in real-time how arts and culture continue to evolve in ways that are driven by people defining for themselves what art is and what it means to have cultural experiences. Our opportunity is to lean into this – whether that’s through the visual performance, music or even culinary arts – and create entry points or onramps to the museum. We are an inclusive environment for people to experience art in different forms, on their terms.
For example, at The Momentary – our satellite contemporary space – music, art and food are our three pillars. We see food as a crucial and accessible piece of culture. And what we’ve found is that music and food are more effective olive branches. Come for the music and a drink, stay and check out the art.
Can you talk about the outdoor and public art initiatives you have been involved with?
Our family is deeply committed to raising the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas, and our strategy has many levers – from education, arts and trails, to housing and lifestyle amenities like restaurants and hotels. Alice is now taking on health care too. Making art part of everyone’s everyday life is one of our goals.
The OZ Art initiative began a few years ago out of a collection my husband Tom and his brother Steuart started. Today there are over 300 paintings, photographs, sculptures, you name it, in restaurants, on the trails, in our downtowns and parks across the region.
You mentioned The Momentary – what does that name mean? And what have you planned for the space in 2022?
The Momentary is a platform for the music, art and food of our time. We are a catalyst for creativity and community; a venue where global meets local. We’re far from a traditional museum. We’re in a flexible, adaptive reuse space – formerly a Kraft cheese plant. We have no permanent collection. This year we’ll have seven major music concerts, plus three festivals, three major visual arts shows and countless culinary activations. What’s on at the Momentary is very “of the moment.” We’re celebrating creativity and turning up the “stoke.”
What does the Venice Biennale represent to you?
I first went to the Biennale as a nine-year-old, with my mother who was an art dealer. I remember gondola rides and lots of gelato. I loved it.
Today, I’d say the Venice Biennale Exhibition represents the crowning event of the art world. It’s an incredible creative achievement, a melting pot of cultural conversations and a wellspring of inspiration. One of our most treasured installations, Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden, was the subject of great conversation at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966, where Kusama unofficially participated. She installed the spheres on a lawn in front of the Italian Pavilion as a fearless emerging female artist, which was quite provocative at the time. Also, we were thrilled to present the acclaimed theatrical installation of Sun & Sea at the Momentary just this past fall (to sold out crowds), which won the 2019 Venice Biennale’s much-coveted Golden Lion award.
What are you most anticipating seeing at the Biennale this year?
I’m thrilled about the focus on female artists, as well as on up-and-coming artists. Cecilia Alemani was an outstanding choice for curator because of her commitment to inclusive storytelling. Of course, I’m very excited to see what Simone Leigh does with the American pavilion. I’m also very much looking forward to seeing Firelei Baez’s new work. Firelei has so much talent and the work has so many layers. Both women are questioning representation of the female body in interesting ways. To give this group of artists and this set of issues this paramount global stage represents a very important moment.