Cody Burnett, Bentonville Realtor, is excited that Bentonville real estate is feeling a boost with the upcoming opening of Crystal Bridges. There are many stories coming out in the press about Bentonville getting ready for…
USA-Today said :
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is set to open here in November. It will be infused with an $800 million endowment by the family of the founders of Wal-Mart — four times that of the renowned Whitney Museum in New York.
It’s the brainchild of Alice Walton, 62, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and an heiress to the Walton family fortune.
Alice Walton’s acquisition of some of the country’s most important pieces of American art, and the fact that they soon will hang in this rural corner of middle America, have rattled the art world.
Walton’s backers say that legendary paintings such as Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, now part of the Crystal Bridges collection, deserve to be seen in rural America, not just in big cities such as Boston, New York and Los Angeles.
“Some people cannot process the thought that fine art and Arkansas can go together,” Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin says. “Obviously, they can.”
Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville, is the world’s largest retailer, with 8,400 stores worldwide and annual sales of more than $405 billion. The museum is just 2 miles and a five-minute drive away from Wal-Mart’s sprawling world headquarters on Southwest Eighth Street.
Sam Walton started the retail empire with a small five-and-dime store in the downtown square in 1950. (Today, it’s the Wal-Mart Visitor’s Center.) Alice Walton grew up playing in the nearby woods.
Critics of the new Crystal Bridges Museum, such as author Rebecca Solnit and Ned Cramer, editor of Architecture magazine, argue that Walton — the third-richest woman in the world with an estimated worth of $21.2 billion, according to Forbes.com — has used her wealth to poach paintings that should remain in their home cities.
Walton’s 2005 acquisition of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits through a sealed auction from the New York Public Library for $35 million, for example, was equated by then-New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman to the destruction of Penn Station.
Alice Walton declined to be interviewed for this article.
Controversy aside, Crystal Bridges Museum will be one of the most important museums to open in the nation’s history, says Lindsay Pollock, editor of Art in America magazine.
“We don’t really know what we’re going to see down there, but it’s going to be a huge shot of adrenaline for the field,” she says.
The museum “will demand attention on a global playing field.”
‘It opens up your senses’
Walton has been collecting privately for more than four decades, and the idea to bring a world-class museum to Bentonville began percolating about a decade ago, New Orleansartist and longtime friend Robert Tannen says.
Backed by the Walton Family Foundation, the museum idea quickly evolved, despite those who questioned whether it should open in Bentonville.
“It’s not just bringing it to a small town. It’s making that art more accessible to more people,” Tannen says. “Why should art only be in these few major urban centers? Why shouldn’t more Americans have access to it?”
The museum is actually eight separate buildings, totaling 200,000 square feet, nestled in a wooded area at the eastern edge of town. Designed by Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, the two largest buildings look like giant copper-covered beetles spanning a steep ravine.
Water from nearby Crystal Springs will gush through the ravine and under the buildings, creating a gurgling backdrop to the galleries, offices, library and café.
Visitors arrive at the museum’s entrance at the top of the ravine and descend below the tree line into the main lobby. Wooded trails connect the museum to the town square, less than a mile away.
The idea is to offer the reverse of an urban museum experience: a confluence of architecture, art and nature, says Don Bacigalupi, the museum’s executive director.
“It kind of opens up your senses and allows you to experience art in a very unique way,” he says.
It’s the collection, however, that art enthusiasts across the USA are most eager to see. Some 500 paintings and sculptures, from the Colonial period to present day, will be on display when the museum opens, Bacigalupi says.
Works range from Charles Wilson Peale’s 18th century portrait of George Washington to a silkscreen of Dolly Parton by Andy Warhol.
With so many important paintings already hanging in other museums, opening a major American art museum today is no easy task, Pollock says.
Alice Walton appears to have achieved that, she says.
“She’s made these very bold moves,” Pollock says. “She’s been a very important collector going after the biggest and most important pieces.”
Controversy in art world
Not everyone has applauded Walton’s buying spree.
Soon after capturing Kindred Spirits, Walton, in partnership with the National Gallery of Art, was poised to acquire Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece The Gross Clinic from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia for $68 million.
The 1875 painting, depicting surgeon Samuel Gross operating on a man’s thigh, is considered one of Philadelphia’s most important art works, says Kathleen Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“It’s the most important painting from the most important Philadelphia painter,” she says.
“The threat of losing a picture like this would say something about Philadelphia, that we don’t care about our history,” Foster adds.
Given the Kindred Spirits controversy, the art brokers involved in selling Gross Clinic to Walton gave city museum leaders 45 days to match the sum and keep the painting in Philadelphia — a near-impossible span of time to raise that sum of money, Foster says.
“It’d never been done before,” she says.
The offer “was given to the city as a courtesy without any sense the museum would ever be able to do this.”
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts launched a frantic, citywide fundraising drive.
They raised half the money in donations, took a loan out for the rest and kept the painting in Philadelphia, Foster says.
Four months later, Walton bought the city’s second-most important painting: Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand, also by Eakins, for a reported $20 million.
Foster says she doesn’t blame Walton for going after the paintings; they’re two of the best examples of 19th century American art.
As a goodwill gesture, Walton has allowed the Philadelphia Museum to display the Randpainting until Crystal Bridges opens.
Even so, the event sent shivers through the Philadelphia art community, Foster says.
“The fear is she has such wealth that she’s going to eliminate the competition,” Foster says. “It’s demoralizing for museums. You just can’t compete. We can’t do this every year.”
‘The human experience’
Meanwhile, Bentonville is bracing for the opening of the museum, expected to draw an estimated 200,000 visitors a year.
A recent $20 million grant from Wal-Mart will allow the museum to offer free admission, a move that is expected to bring even more guests.
Around Bentonville, other cultural attractions are limited.
Office parks with merchants who sell products to Wal-Mart line the busy avenues leading to the retail giant’s headquarters. Chain restaurants and hotels hug the highway.
Even so, the downtown square is coming alive, thanks to the museum.
City workers have laid new brick sidewalks and landscaping around the square in anticipation of the influx of visitors. A new 130-room Museum Hotel is scheduled to open near the square next year, marking the arrival of the city’s first boutique hotel.
Two new restaurants — a brasserie-style eatery and an Italian trattoria — also are readying to open just off the square.
Amon Easley, 35, an art educator, moved from Little Rock to Bentonville in April to be closer to the museum.
Its opening could spark the region’s cultural awakening, she says.
“It’s not just about the art. It’s about the human experience,” she says. “We’re building an entire museum culture here.”
City leaders hope the guests, drawn by the promise of priceless American art, will be equally enchanted with northwest Arkansas and its small-town charm.
“A lot of things are beginning to happen here in this town of 35,000,” Mayor McCaslin says.