American Art, Alice Walton’s Way

The Walmart heiress’s controversial museum opens with an inclusive and even quirky selection of American art that reveals an increasing focus on the present

The Crystal Bridges Museum, designed by Moshe Safdie. Some of the pavilions seem to float on water diverted from a nearby stream.


Fitting the new Crystal Bridges Museum into the taxonomy of American art museums has not been easy. Conceived and financed by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, the project has inspired such hyperbole as “a museum that will demand attention on a global scale” and “a fig leaf for corporate greed and raw exploitation.” Now the doors are open, the collection is on view, and Walton’s ambitions can be addressed on quite different terms.

The museum, which opened in November, stands within a 120-acre park in Bentonville, Arkansas. Bentonville (population 35,000) is Alice Walton’s childhood home, the location of her father Sam Walton’s first five-and-dime store, and now the site of Walmart’s world headquarters. The city maintains a picturesque town square but a vast Walmart parking lot, strip malls, and anonymous corporate office buildings dominate the main route from the freeway to the park.

For the visitor entering the park by car, the sensory shift is calculated and abrupt. The 201,000-square-foot complex, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, is settled within a deep forest hollow framed by lush vegetation, a botanical garden, and a series of trails through the woods. A stream fed by the nearby Crystal Springs once ran through the hollow, which was expanded to accommodate Safdie’s design by blasting away tons of rock. Stream water was rechanneled into pipes to supply two large ponds in the center of the complex. A restaurant pavilion and one of the gallery spaces bridge the ponds, inspiring the name of the museum.

The restaurant, an expansive tunnel adjoining the museum’s entry hall, is one of the largest and most theatrical public spaces in the complex. Slices of light radiate from ceiling to floor through openings in the beetle-shaped copper roof, falling between massive laminated beams of Arkansas white pine. Glass walls on both sides of the restaurant provide views of two similar copper-topped pavilions apparently floating on the ponds. It is a lush and subtle extravaganza, one financed by the $1.2 billion donation the Walton family and Walton Family Foundation made to the museum in 2010. Most of the funds are divided into 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.

What the public can expect to see, according to art historian John Wilmerding, who has served as one of Walton’s primary advisers, is a collection that ranks “in the top half dozen of American-art museums, maybe higher.” Many connoisseurs of American art, however, may not share this assessment. The 18th- and 19th-century paintings line up favorably with American Art History 101, although a number of big names are missing. Some of the works were well known in their previous locations, among them Richard Caton Woodville’s War News from Mexico (1848), recently sold by the National Academy Museum in New York. Four important paintings—John Singleton Copley’s 1765 portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr., Gilbert Stuart’s 1797 Constable-Hamilton portrait of George Washington, Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn (1820), and Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849)—were owned by the New York Public Library until 2005. The earliest paintings at Crystal Bridges, six portraits of members of the prominent Jewish colonial Levy-Frank family from around 1735, are among the rarest and most historically engaging documents in the collection.

Artists represented in some depth here are Martin Johnson Heade, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent. Landscapes occupy much of the display, ranging from John Vanderlyn’s Niagara and the Rapids (1801–2) to first- and second-generation Hudson River School paintings by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, John Kensett, and Albert Bierstadt to later Impressionist canvases by John Twachtman and Willard Metcalf. Walton had acquired several of the paintings in this group before she decided to build a museum. If it’s not quite a textbook survey, it is the foundation for an inclusive overview of 18th- and 19th-century American painting.

In an interview with Walton appended to the museum’s catalogue, Wilmerding volunteers his opinion that “in a way” the acquisition of Kindred Spirits “was the first, transformative foundation of the museum coming into its own, taking on an identity nationally.” This statement may raise the eyebrows of New Yorkers who were dismayed by the loss of Kindred Spirits and aware of the many hats Wilmerding wore at the time of the $35 million closed-bid sale. Wilmerding was an adviser to both the library and Walton, as well as 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 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 the citizenry to match the offer and keep the painting in Philadelphia.

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. Comparisons with Walmart’s business practices were inevitable: critic Kriston Capps, for example, wrote in the Guardian that “Walton collects art with the same disregard for fair practices and competition that Wal-Mart shows in the retail sector.” Even the Arkansas Times, a supporter of the Walton family, conceded that “to build a great collection of American art, little of which is in private hands, Walton must look to public institutions and purchases are bound to cause hard feelings.”

Walton has declined interviews in connection with the museum’s debut, but in the past she has responded to these criticisms by stressing her willingness to collaborate with other institutions. As she told the New York Times last spring, “We want to share; we want to borrow; we want to loan; we want to have really active partnerships with museums worldwide.” At press time, Crystal Bridges was still entangled in a legal dispute over its support of Fisk University’s plan to cash out its collection of early-20th-century art donated by Georgia O’Keeffe, but controversies over Walton’s more recent purchases have scaled down to near zero.

This shift synchronizes, coincidently or not, with the hiring of Don Bacigalupi as director of Crystal Bridges in 2009 and Walton’s newfound enthusiasm for modern and contemporary American art. Bacigalupi, a specialist in post-1945 American art and visual culture, came to Bentonville after a six-year tenure as director of the Toledo Museum in Ohio. “We try to be very circumspect with our acquisitions,” he says. “Alice is very aware of the effect her buying may have on the art market.” As Walton “has become more exposed to modern and contemporary art, her interests have expanded. She’s become fascinated with an even broader story of American art, including the art of today.”

The Crystal Bridges galleries are laid out in a chronological sequence. In the 18th- and 19th-century galleries, paintings are displayed on the walls of curved hallways. The setting offers the intimate viewing experience of a domestic interior when the number of visitors is small, but it’s difficult to predict how some of these galleries will fare when they are filled with larger crowds, baby strollers, wheelchairs, and audio guides. The 20th-century modern and contemporary galleries are larger, more flexible rectangular spaces, and their contents will undoubtedly surprise visitors who expect the collection to concentrate on 19th-century icons.

Although these purchases did not make headlines, some of Walton’s 20th-century acquisitions were well known to dealers and curators before the museum opened, including Robert Henri’s 1908 portrait of the actress Jessica Penn, George Bellows’s Excavation at Night (1908), and John Sloan’s Bleecker Street, Saturday Night (1918). Even insiders, however, may find an unexpected range of work in the inaugural show. The collection has strengths in work from the Stieglitz circle, for example, including a 1917 watercolor and later paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and canvases by Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley. Hartley’s 1940 Madawaska—Arcadian Light—Heavy, a portrait of a young boxer with glowing nipples, is especially arresting and well displayed. Crystal Bridges founding curator Chris Crosman’s description of the painting is not coy about its homoerotic allure: the painting, he writes, “reveals Hartley’s full-blown embrace of homosexual desires that up to this point had remained hidden in stylized imagery, encoded in mystical symbols, or subsumed in representations of nature’s heaving rhythms.” Alfred Maurer and Stuart Davis, special favorites of Walton, are also well represented in this survey.

The early-20th-century room wraps up with a 1936–37 Arshile Gorky still life, which could have been hung in the modern-and-contemporary gallery with an early ho-hum Pollock and a 1946 psuedo-Surrealist painting by David Smith. Again, several acquisitions here were well publicized in advance, including Warhol’s portrait of Dolly Parton, Chuck Close’s portraits of Bill Clinton, and Wayne Thiebaud’s eerie 1963 Supine Woman, depicting an apparently catatonic figure almost as flat as the floor.

Contrary to preopening predictions, the gallery displays many abstract paintings. Perhaps the most spectacular artwork in the room is the six-and-a-half-foot Joan Mitchell gesture painting from 1952–53. Other abstract compositions include canvases by Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers, Grace Hartigan, Adolph Gottlieb, Theodoros Stamos, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. The collection is not just a big-name checklist, however: also on view are paintings by self-taught artist Janet Sobel, whose claim to fame is three sentences about her 1945 pre-Pollock “drip” compositions written by the critic Clement Greenberg.

Among the opening events are temporary exhibitions drawn from the collection. The most ambitious is “Wonder World,” a survey of approaches to “realism” by contemporary artists. Assembled by curatorial director David Houston, formerly chief curator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the show is both witty and routine—Dan Flavin versus photorealist Richard Estes. This exhibition subverts conventional wisdom about the museum’s collection with several artworks, including a John Baldessari sound sculpture, Nam June Paik’s multimedia portrait of John Cage, an inlaid wood installation by Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Roxy Paine’s steel-and-plastic Bad Lawn, Al Souza’s fantastic jigsaw-puzzle collage, and holograms by James Turrell, who was also commissioned to create one of his “skyspaces” for the museum.

So how were decisions about these acquisitions made? Has Walton replaced Wilmerding as her primary adviser? According to Bacigalupi, “Our acquisition process is akin to most art museums. I, as director, vet all curatorial proposals before presenting them to the board’s art committee, which deliberates and ultimately must approve any potential acquisition. Alice Walton serves as board chair and serves on the art committee.” Wilmerding is also on the board and a member of the art committee.

As the range of work on view at the opening suggests, curatorial taste and ambition now play an ascending role in shaping the Crystal Bridges collection. Bacigalupi and Houston plan to build up the Abstract Expressionist holdings and are on the alert for a major Pollock painting; Houston also noted his interest in sculptors Martin Puryear and Donald Judd. Kevin Murphy, a specialist in 19th-century American art and a former curator at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, would like to acquire paintings by Whistler, George Caleb Bingham, and such late-19th-centry academic artists as Kenyon Cox.

All the curators are young enough to have grown up professionally with a concern for inclusiveness and diversity. A focus on representations of strong women and women artists, for example, is a major subtheme of the Crystal Bridges collection. Several African American artists are represented in the inaugural show, beginning chronologically with Robert Scott Duncanson (1821–72), said to be the first internationally successful African American landscape painter, and ending with recent work by Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker. There are many images of Native Americans by artists such as Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, and Edward Curtis, but only one Native American artist, Leon Polk Smith, is included in the collection. This statistic seems especially poignant: Bentonville was the western terminus of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

The museum’s basic mission is to “tell the unfolding history of the United States through the lens of its visual arts.” To accomplish this politically delicate goal, the education program will highlight innovation. As the collection catalogue states, the “artist’s left-brain thinking belongs to the same tradition of invention that yielded the cotton gin, the telegraph, air travel and the internet. Sam Walton’s hometown makes perfect sense for a museum devoted to American art and its create-something-from-nothing spirit.” The museum’s opening exhibition, “Celebrating the American Spirit,” is sponsored by General Electric, Coca-Cola, and Goldman Sachs—“iconic companies,” according to the museum’s public-relations team, that embody the same “spirit” as the collection.

To sympathizers of Occupy Wall Street, this embrace of corporate behemoths may cement the museum’s reputation as a false front for Walmart. But acknowledging diversity is not only good practice in collecting; it’s also a prerequisite for productive engagement with American regional cultures. As Bacigalupi says, in collecting and programming for the museum “we must remember first of all where we are.” Most citizens in the right-to-work state of Arkansas revere Walmart as an economic engine and major employer purveying merchandise many could not otherwise afford. Crystal Bridges will make it possible for a sizable underserved population to experience important works of art for free. Attracting new audiences to art museums by relating artistic creation to other genres of innovative and imaginative thinking has proven to be an effective outreach strategy.

The museum’s educational agenda is broad and ambitious. Collaborations with the University of Arkansas in nearby Fayetteville are in the works, including future programs in conjunction with Leo Mazow, the university’s new associate professor of American art. The museum is building a library and an archive (50,000 volumes on opening day), and plans to announce a fellowship program for visiting scholars. Alice Walton has a track record for supporting art education for children: 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.

Crystal Bridges undoubtedly will “take on an identity nationally,” but it will begin by sinking roots in northwest Arkansas. As Walton has observed, “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.”

Patricia Failing is a professor of art history at the University of Washington in Seattle and a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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