The newly opened American art museum, Crystal Bridges Museum, was conceived and financed by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. The highly controversial project has been hailed as “a museum that will demand attention on a global scale” and criticized as “a fig leaf for corporate greed and raw exploitation.”
The museum was built on a 120-acre park in the town of Bentonville, Arkansas, population 35,000. This is the same town that Alice Walton’s childhood home, her father Sam Walton’s first five-and-dime store, and now the site of Walmart’s world headquarters are all located. The museum, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, consists of a 201,000 square foot complex surrounded by a forest and botanical gardens with a series of walking trails. The Crystal Springs stream that once ran through the area has been re-channeled into pipes to supply two large ponds in the center of the complex. The restaurant and main pavilions, with glass walls and beetle-shaped copper roofs, appear to “float” on the ponds. These are some of the many attributes the museum financed through a $1.2 billion dollar donation the Walton family and Walton Family Foundation made to the museum in 2010. Most of the funds are divided into several endowments: $325 million for acquisitions, $350 million for operations, and $125 million to maintain the eight pavilions on the site. The foundation established an additional $20 million endowment to provide free admission for the public.
The museum is dedicated to representing American art, boasting a world-class collection of 18th and 19th-Century paintings including work by Martin Johnson Heade, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent. Notable landscape paintings range from John Vanderlyn’s Niagara and the Rapids (1801–2), to first and second generation Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, John Kensett and Albert Bierstadt to later Impressionist paintings by John Twachtman and Willard Metcalf.
The acquisitions of several works featured in this collection have caused controversy and resentment, especially that of Kindred Spirits by Asher Durand, which was purchased from the New York Public Library. Many New Yorkers were upset at the loss of this important work. Furthermore, the $35 million closed-bid sale raises ethical questions as Alice Walton’s primary adviser who oversaw the acquisition of this piece, John Wilmerding, was simultaneously an adviser to the New York Public Library, who sold the painting. Wilmerding was also a visiting curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a trustee of the National Gallery, two museums that jointly offered a reported $25 million to keep the painting in the New York area. The following year, Walton and the National Gallery made a $68 million collaborative bid to acquire Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, but a consortium of local museums rallied to match the offer and keep the painting in Philadelphia.
Patricia Failing of Art News comments, “The national identity Walton began to take on after acquiring Kindred Spirits was not, in fact, that of a developer creating a transformative museum, but that of a poacher preying on cash-strapped institutions by offering record prices for locally significant treasures.” In addition, comparisons with Wal-Mart’s business practices have been made, most notably by critic Kriston Capps, who wrote in the Guardian, “Walton collects art with the same disregard for fair practices and competition that Walmart shows in the retail sector.”
Controversies over Alice Walton’s more recent purchases have diminished as her interests have shifted to Modern and Contemporary American art. With museum director, Don Bacigalupi, Walton made acquisitions of prominent early 20th Century works of art including, Robert Henri’s portrait of the actress Jessica Penn (1908), George Bellows’s Excavation at Night (1908) and John Sloan’s Bleecker Street, Saturday Night (1918). The collection in this pavilion also includes work by Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky.
In the adjoining Modern and Contemporary gallery, a visitor would see work by David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Andy Warhol’s portrait of Dolly Parton, a six-and-a-half-foot Joan Mitchell gesture painting (1952–53), Chuck Close’s portraits of Bill Clinton and Wayne Thiebaud’s eerie Supine Woman (1963) to name a few. We are pleased to announce that among the many important American artists collected by Crystal Bridges Museum is artist Bo Bartlett. Bartlett’s 80 x 112 inch canvas titled, “The Lobster Wars” was acquired by the museum last year.
The Crystal Bridges museum is promising to be a monumental national institution. Yet, Walton points out that the museum is more than that, remarking “A lot of people don’t really know this part of the world, really don’t know the people here and their desire and need for art.” “But when they come and see what’s here and what we’ve done,” she adds, “I think their attitudes might change.”
Most citizens in the right-to-work state of Arkansas revere Walmart as an economic powerhouse and as a major employer, purveying merchandise many could not otherwise afford. Now, Crystal Bridges, funded by the Walmart fortune, will make it possible for a sizable underserved population to experience important works of art for free. The museum’s educational agenda is broad and ambitious including collaborations with the University of Arkansas, plans to build an extensive library and archive, as well as offer a fellowship program for visiting scholars. Alice Walton’s track record for supporting art education for children, along with the precedent she set at Crystal Bridges, inspired the local Walker Foundation to contribute a $10 million endowment to provide funding to local schools to cover costs for visits to the museum and learning sessions for students and teachers in the museum’s high-tech interactive education studio.