Sam Walton said that his only daughter was the most like him of his children. Her recent activity lends credence to that judgment. Like her father, Alice Walton has assured that she'll be long remembered, and in her own right. She's no longer just "a Wal-Mart heiress." There are lots of heiresses around. Alice Walton is an art patron and philanthropist of spectacular dimension, a benefactor of her native state in unprecedented fashion. And for that, she is, too, the Arkansas Times' Arkansan of the Year.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened Nov. 11 at Bentonville, near the headquarters of Wal-Mart, the giant retail chain founded by Sam Walton. The reviews that appeared afterward, in the most prestigious journals, were, for the most part, glowing:
The New York Times — "By just about any measure, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art ... is off to a running start. The dream-come-true of Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, it is characterized by people both inside and outside the museum as a work in progress, with plenty of room for improvement. But there it stands, a big, serious, confident, new installation with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums.
"Much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family's name, Crystal Bridges is poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world."
The Economist — "The Ozarks are America's least appreciated mountain range. Lacking the majesty of the Rockies, the breadth of the Appalachians or the mournful grandeur of the Cascades, there they sit, somewhere in the middle of the country, south of the Midwest, north of the South, east of the mountainous West. They have long drawn fishermen and hikers; until now, however, art fanciers have had little reason to visit.
"That changes with the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art ... With 120 acres of forests and gardens and long hiking trails connecting it with downtown Bentonville, Crystal Bridges is not just in but also of the Ozarks. Its patron, Alice Walton, is the scion of the Ozarks' first family: her father, Sam Walton, opened a discount store called Wal-Mart in nearby Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. Today Walmart (which officially went hyphenless in 2008) is America's largest private employer. The Walton Family Foundation gave the museum a $1.2 billion endowment and Ms. Walton and the museum have been on something of a buying spree for several years.
"The museum is not simply Ms. Walton's own private collection. ... Ms. Walton has long spoken of wanting to bring art to a region that has little of it, and in that ambition she has without question succeeded." (The headline in The Economist, an influential newsweekly based in London, referred to the museum as "a hinterland beauty" and "a rural gem.")
The verdict was not unanimous though. Walmart and the Walton family have their detractors, inside and outside their home state. One of the harshest critics was Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist writing for Bloomberg.com:
"Crystal Bridges, in many ways, is an aesthetic success. It's also a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided [Alice] Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a terrifying recession. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else. ... I'm not begrudging Alice Walton her inherited wealth. What I am begrudging are her priorities. Walton has the influence to help Wal-Mart workers, especially women, earn more money and gain access to affordable health care. But her response so far to the needs of the people whose sweat pays for her paintings is a simple one: Let them eat art."
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