Billionaire shapes an art museum for the heartland

The era of the world-class museum built by a single philanthropist in the tradition of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Pierpont Morgan Jr. and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney may seem to have passed, but Alice Walton is bringing it back.

Yet her mission is unlike those of her predecessors, or of more recent art patrons such as Ronald Lauder and his Neue Galerie. They set out to put great works on display in cultural capitals such as New York and Boston. Instead, Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — the first major institution in 50 years dedicated to the vast spectrum of American art, to be housed in a building more than twice the size of the current Whitney Museum of American Art — seeks to bring high art to Middle America in Bentonville, a town of 35,000 that is best known as the home of Wal-Mart.

Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has worked on the museum for nearly a decade but has said little about it in public until now. In a recent interview at Town Branch, her family home, she said she wanted to turn Bentonville into an international destination for art lovers when the museum opens Nov. 11.

At the moment the most significant nearby cultural attractions are two hours away: a museum of Western and American Indian art in Tulsa, Okla., and, in the other direction, the country-music magnet of Branson, Mo.

"For years I've been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world," said Walton, 61. "I thought this is something we desperately need, and what a difference it would have made were it here when I was growing up."

The 201,000-square-foot museum was designed by the Boston architect Moshe Safdie for a site around two ponds on 120 acres of former Walton family land. Named for the nearby Crystal Spring, the museum will display top-flight works by American masters from the Colonial era to the present, with the largest concentrations coming from the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the collection — about 600 paintings and sculptures — is small by the standards of big museums, it is growing at a steady clip.

"She has not just been concentrating on what could be perceived as the greatest hits in American art," said John Wilmerding, an art historian and professor at Princeton University, who has been advising Walton for seven years and is on the Crystal Bridges board. "She has collected the work of some of these artists in depth," quietly amassing substantial bodies of work by figures such as Martin Johnson Heade, Stuart Davis, George Bellows and John Singer Sargent.

Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, turned to buying art specifically for the museum in 2005, resulting in a years-long spending spree that has made her a recognized force in the art market. She has been one of those mysterious anonymous buyers at auctions and at galleries who often pay top dollar and has spent many tens of millions of dollars on works such as Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington from 1797 ($8.1 million), Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits" from 1849 ($35 million) and Norman Rockwell's 1943 "Rosie the Riveter" ($4.9 million).

She has also bought more recent works, including a Jasper Johns "Alphabets" painting from 1960-62 (priced at $11 million) and a 1985 Andy Warhol silkscreen of Dolly Parton and a 2009 Chuck Close triptych depicting Bill Clinton (prices unknown). (She is hoping that Parton and Clinton, a friend, will attend the opening.)

Her museum has commissioned several major site-specific works, including a giant silver tree by Roxy Paine that sits at the entrance and a hypnotic large-scale light installation by James Turrell. The museum's director, Don Bacigalupi, recruited nearly two years ago from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, is a specialist in contemporary art and has been encouraging Walton to expand the museum's holdings by living artists.

Museum officials said they were planning for about 250,000 visitors in their first year and expect an annual operating budget of $16 million to $20 million. In addition to the 120 full-time jobs the institution is creating, they said, it will pump millions of tourist dollars into northwest Arkansas.

Walton started thinking seriously about building an art museum in the late 1990s and brought it up a few times at the meetings the family holds three times a year. She thought she needed the backing of her nieces and nephews, she said, because the land would have eventually become theirs. Walton, who is divorced, has no children.

"That decision brewed for a year and a half," she said, before there was unanimous agreement.

She had the means to realize her vision. According to calculations by Forbes, her net worth is $21 billion, making her the ninth-richest person in the United States and the 21st richest in the world. A celebrated horsewoman who seems more comfortable in sneakers than stilettos, she is the youngest of four children; while her eldest brother, S. Robson Walton, is chairman of Wal-Mart, and another brother, Jim, is a member of the board, she is not involved in the company's daily operations. (A third brother, John, died in a plane crash in 2005.) Although she started and ran an investment company in the late 1980s and '90s, she now divides her time between Bentonville and Millsap, Texas, where she breeds cutting horses and runs the 1,600-acre Rocking W Ranch.

Along with family approval of the project, there has been some financial help. Last month, Crystal Bridges said the Walton Family Foundation had pledged $800 million to the institution for an operating endowment, acquisitions and future capital improvements, a gift believed to be one of the largest ever to an American museum.

The museum's board, meanwhile, includes members well-equipped to chip in, such as John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, and C. Douglas McMillon, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart International. Although Alice Walton took only one art-history course in college, she said, she has spent much of the past 25 years reading about the subject, and — according to advisers and others who have spent time with her — she is a savvy collector.

"Often when something would come up privately she'd say, 'Wait, it will come to auction where we can get it at a better price,' " Wilmerding recalled. "And she'd be right."

John Richardson, the Pablo Picasso biographer, met Walton through friends during one of her frequent trips to New York, and visited the Museum of Modern Art with her. "She knew exactly what she was looking at," Richardson recalled of their walk around the show "Abstract Expressionist New York."

"I was surprised," he said. "When we were looking at a painting by Norman Lewis" — an African-American painter who is relatively obscure compared to many of the other artists in the show — "she not only recognized his work but said the museum already had bought something of his, which is quite adventurous."

At least one aspect of her approach to art sets her apart from most collectors of her financial muscle, who traditionally gravitate toward the European Impressionists and early modernists or international contemporary art stars.

"I never would have thought of collecting anything but American, truly," she said. "This is the heartland of the country. It's what should be here."

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