Wal-Mart is known for bringing its customers just about anything. The bulky, white boxes dot the planet, sporting teabags and trousers, mousetraps and – in China – crocodiles. Conspicuously missing in the utilitarian clunkers are the qualities of elegance, artistry or beauty. But in the small town of Bentonville, Ark., this is about to change.
Alice Walton, heiress to the vast Wal-Mart fortune, has been quietly building her new “Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art” on 120 acres of Walton property, beginning in 2007. Walton’s vision is to “turn Bentonville into an international destination for art lovers.”
“Crystal Bridges,” photo of construction, July 2011
Apparently Ms. Walton developed an early interest in art, with her first piece being a reproduction of Picasso’s “Blue Nude” from her father’s store at the age of ten. Now armed with a $21-billion fortune and a good sense of art and American history, Walton has amassed hundreds of works for the museum with more expected in the future.
The Crystal Bridges Museum is a monumental undertaking in size and breadth, and is the first museum dedicated solely to quality American art in over 50 years. In addition to 217,000 square feet of art galleries (equivalent to 5 acres) it is extended by a complex maze of land forms and other structures. This includes classrooms, halls, bridges, waterworks, restaurants, miles of trails and outdoor sculptures.
“Dolly Parton,” silkscreen by Andy Warhol
The new art haven will feature American paintings from the Early Colonial through Contemporary eras. Spectacular pieces such as both Charles Wilson Peale’s and Gilbert Stuart’s versions of “George Washington” will grace its halls. Many of the most revered names in American art will join them, such as John Singer Sergeant, George Bellows, Edward Hopper and even Norman Rockwell.
Walton famously collects contemporary art also and her collection is extensive and varied. Some of the artists represented include Warhol, Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close and Nick Cave among others. Most of the art has not yet been made public.
The Museum has already commissioned several new site specific works, such as giant metal trees by sculptor Roxy Paine for the entrance and a built-in structure (Skyspace) by James Turrell, which becomes a semi-natural light show at dusk.
Crystal Bridges had $488 million in assets as of August 2008, but even that wasn’t enough to float this big boat. In 2011 three new endowments from the Walton Family Foundation totaled $800 million, the largest cash donation ever made to a U.S. art museum. No one but those closest has any idea what the actual art tab comes to, but it must be hefty.
“Kindred Spirits,” by Asher Brown Durand, 1869
It would seem money is no object when $35 million is dropped on a single painting by Asher Brown Durand in a sealed-bid auction from the New York Public library.
Dozens of other celebrated works are being amassed (some currently on loan to other museums) while they prepare for the big opening on 11/11/11. Walton and her associates watch art auctions carefully and stay informed about the art market and potential sales. She is well-known in art circles as a serious, life-long collector with an awareness of individual artists and their work.
A few purchases have made the news, such as Walton’s 2004 phone bid to Sotheby’s where she picked up works by George Bellows, Winslow Homer and Fairfield Porter – and the most interesting tidbit; this was all done from horseback while Walton was preparing for a National Cutting Horse Association show in Fort Worth, Texas.
Lest anyone doubt that great art could reside in Arkansas, Princeton art historian John Wilmerding proves him wrong. Wilmerding had consulted Walton on acquisitions and says that the museum will undoubtedly rank extremely high in comparison to other American art museums due to its “quality, range and depth.”
The heiress is making a personal quest to add to the cultural capital of her childhood home in Arkansas, although she now lives in Texas. Her plan grew as she “thought this is something we desperately need” and the difference it would have made in her own childhood. She explained that “this is the heartland of the country – it’s what should be here.”
Walton emulates earlier generations of wealthy capitalists or their offspring, who used personal money for public progress, health or education. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon or Ford – most American cities benefit from huge gifts from these men or someone like them. Sam Walton’s only daughter also involves herself in business and other philanthropic endeavors, such as children’s camps, university endowments and sitting on the board of The National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
She hopes the museum will explore the American story by “collecting, exhibiting … and preserving” art that “illuminates our heritage and artistic possibilities.”
Recent write ups by The New Yorker, The New York Times and art publications have been remarkably respectful in tone when considering the accomplishments of Ms. Walton. It would be easy to take potshots at the source of her earnings, but they have generally refrained and seem genuinely impressed with her project in the big leagues of art.
Charles Sheeler Amoskeag Mills #2, 1948
There have been a few remarks over the limitation to American art as might be expected.
“My parents were both very patriotic, and I would not consider anything but American art,” Walton explains in The New Yorker.
Some critics have raised the point that because of outsourcing to China, Wal-Mart has not necessarily worked for the best interests of the U.S. in the past. It is claimed by some economic sources that Wal-Mart alone is responsible for up to 11 percent of the U.S. trade deficit with China, although that should not stop Walton from building a museum.
I also found this comment amusing. An art-blogger (who shall remain nameless) was fuming that she “feared” the lack of national diversity in the museum holdings until art sophisticate Don Bacigalupi was hired as director. I can imagine this woman sitting up nights, afraid to sleep because there was no Anselm Keifer in the collection. Such is the thought life of some art bloggers in a politically correct age.
Regardless, there is excitement and anticipation brewing in both Arkansas and the big art cities over the imminent opening of Walton’s museum. In a corporate age where few individuals create visionary public centers of this scope with their own funds, Walton is considered gutsy and daring, even by her detractors.
Incidentally, the museum will offer free admission thanks to a $20 million donation from Wal-Mart.
Crystal Bridges director Don Bacigalupi commented that many museums are priced beyond full community participation: “Wal-Mart has shown extraordinary vision and foresight … providing all that Crystal Bridges has to offer to all people at no cost.”
One thing visitors can know with certainty, none of the artwork was made in China.