SEVEN YEARS IS a long time to fume over the cultural power of the nouveaux riches. But that's been the reaction of many in the art world ever since Alice Walton—major heir to the Walmart fortune and thus one of the wealthiest people on the planet—plopped down a staggering $35 million for Asher B. Durand's 1849 painting Kindred Spirits (a distant view of artist Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant on a high ledge in the Catskill Mountains) and then spirited it from the walls of the New York Public Library to the Ozark foothills. It was the opening volley in her 21st-century campaign pitting South against North, popular against elite values.
Walton (b. 1949), daughter of Walmart's founder, is an anomaly: an accomplished horsewoman, she does not generally hobnob with artistic mavens on either coast, and her pockets remain deep while the global economy is in a volatile, even hemorrhagic condition. (In 2011, Forbes listed her as number 21 on a list of the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $20.9 billion.1) Moreover, until her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art debuted to great fanfare in Bentonville, Ark., on Nov. 11, 2011, few people knew the range or size of the trove she's been collecting. Walton's secrecy and interloper status irked art world insiders, and critics resorted to speculation, innuendo and "snarkiness," according to David Houston, the museum's curatorial director.2 Walton is not completely unknown in art circles, however: she has served on the boards of both the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In hindsight, Sandy Edwards, deputy director of museum relations at Crystal Bridges, recognizes that the museum's refusal to reveal its holdings in advance exposed the venture to attack. But administrators decided not to release information in dribs and drabs because, she argues, "it's hard to talk about a collection that's ‘becoming.'"3 Rather, the idea was "to build a groundswell and then pull the cloth away for the reveal—voilà!" says Houston. Now that the 217,000-square-foot facility is open, with an inaugural showcasing of some 400 of its more than 1,400 works,4 Crystal Bridges is available for critical scrutiny.
The project is pharaonic in scope and ambition, aiming not only to establish a world-class museum during a precipitous fiscal downturn but to transform an Arkansas hollow into a cultural destination. Striving to realize these wishes in a 120-acre wooded site that Walton roamed in her youth, workmen have reshaped the land, rerouted a stream and planted thousands of seedlings. A freshly assembled managerial staff, meanwhile, has created operational and curatorial teams to facilitate the public display of a largely individually amassed art collection.
Bentonville (population 35,000) is Walmart, full stop. Sam Walton's original five-and-dime still anchors the town's compact square. Established in 1950, the store is now the Walmart Visitor Center and a monument to the business acumen of "Mr. Sam." Walton (1918–1992) was raised during the Depression, became the youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri, graduated from the University of Missouri in 1940 and served stateside during WWII in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps. After the war, he established himself as canny entrepreneur, steadily expanding his discount emporium into the world's largest retailer.
According to the center's educational materials, Walton, a devoted family man, epitomized "timeless small-town values." A hagiographic film screened at the center features George Bush, Sr., fighting back tears as he awards Mr. Sam the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and declares, "His success is our success, America's success." The irony is, of course, that Walmart's gargantuan size, immense buying power and tightfisted labor practices enable the company to dominate the marketplace wherever it goes, forcing many local enterprises out of business and draining life from countless Main Streets and town squares whose values it supposedly embodies. Meanwhile, its reliance on cheap manufacturing in China has robbed the U.S. heartland of innumerable jobs.
But enough of the real world. Just as People Greeters welcome shoppers to all Walmart stores, Gallery Guides at Crystal Bridges sport large "Ask Me" buttons and repeatedly inquire, "Are you enjoying yourself?" Introducing selected works, they loudly proclaim, "This is a national treasure!" Guides also offer interpretations and supply background information on the art.5 Moreover, from parking attendants to restaurant waitstaff, all Crystal Bridges personnel seem to have dutifully absorbed Sam Walton's "10-foot rule": "I promise and declare that whenever I come within 10 feet of a customer, I will look him in the eye, greet him, and ask if I can help him." Under the scrutiny of two Guides per gallery in addition to a phalanx of roving guards, museum visitors may find it difficult to quietly contemplate the art or form their own opinions about the museum experience.
In a locale where entries for churches and religious organizations fill eight pages in the regional yellow pages (only doctors, dentists, restaurants and plumbers—many of them with large picture ads—take up comparable space), faith and work are closely intertwined. During my visit, one outdoor church sign counseled, "If you don't succeed / read the instructions / the Bible," and another advised, "Autumn leaves / Jesus doesn't." Besides Crystal Bridges, places of cultural interest in the area include the Daisy Airgun Museum; the Promised Land Zoo; Terra Studios, source of the Bluebird of Happiness glass collectibles; and the Precious Moments Chapel, whose "ministry of art" murals, painted by illustrator Samuel J. Butcher, feature 84 biblical scenes. Kum & Go gas stations are a local favorite and Hog Huntin' magazine is featured at the airport.
On the drive into town, you see that the built environment recapitulates the economic evolution of the area: a cluster of ancient shacks, their brittle wooden slats weathered to gray, gives way to a doublewide trailer, followed by a new gated community, its medieval-style guard tower looming over a solitary house. Roadhouse barbecue joints proiferate, while subdivisions bear unlikely names such as El Contento. At the museum, visitor garb includes elaborately embroidered rodeo shirts, cowboy boots and hats, oversize belt buckles, and T-shirts commemorating trips to the Grand Ole Opry or the Rock and Worship Roadshow. It's easy to disdain such social particulars, but art world sophisticates—as advocates of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism—might well consider the extent to which these folkways represent an authentic regional style and a venerable history.
IN 1880, JOSEPH C. Choate, a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhorted those assembled for the museum's dedication to step up and invest in culture for the public good:
Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets-what glory may yet be yours, if only you listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery . . . and railroad shares and mining stocks . . . into the glorified canvas of the world's masters, that shall adorn these walls for centuries.6
While today's corporate fortunes may spring from different products and ser- vices, the impulse remains strong, from the Carnegies, Whitneys, Morgans, Fricks and Gardners through the Rockefellers (both Abby and John D.) to the Lauders and Broads onward: the wealthy establish cultural institutions to educate and uplift the masses, while also celebrating their personal accomplishments and largesse.
Significantly, Alice Walton resisted the time-honored practice of erecting an eponymous edifice that dominates its environment. Without considering any other architects, she tapped Moshe Safdie to design an over $100-million complex in harmony with its surroundings, an institution named after the local Crystal Stream and "grounded in place," according to Houston. Edwards describes it as a "merging of art, nature and architecture."
The scheme spawns organic analogies: three vaulted, lozenge-shaped pavilions feature ribbed copper-and-glass roofs evoking the conjoined sections of an armadillo's carapace. One contains galleries; another, a restaurant; the third, a Great Hall for lectures and other special events. Inside these spaces, it's as if you've entered the body cavity of a whale or dinosaur. The pavilions are accompanied by six other structures that house administrative offices, a library, the majority of the exhibition areas and service facilities. Soaring windows torque outward, sleek surfaces abound, and the sprawling campus surrounds an artificial pond. At night the building's arched red cedar ceiling beams are suffused with a warm glow; they, in turn, create fanlike patterns on the glass. All in all, Crystal Bridges resembles a small, gleaming, bustling city.
In keeping with the people-friendly plan, six nature trails meander for more than three miles, casually connecting downtown Bentonville with the museum. James Turrell's The Way of Color (2009), housed in a circular structure beside one of the paths, exemplifies the desired convergence of art and environment. Equal parts ancient celestial observatory and high-tech visual spectacle, it invites visitors to gaze through the large aperture in the roof as hundreds of LED lights progress through the color spectrum and interact with the sky and atmospheric conditions to create a slowly shifting panorama of hues.