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High art in middle America 

Alice Walton opens Crystal Bridges.

On the square in Bentonville, Arkansas, the morning of Nov. 11: Folks from Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville, Bella Vista. And Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood. Hot Springs. Etc. Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma. From Los Angeles. And who knows where else.

A woman whose wizened face and wary look suggested a hard life in the Ozarks. A little boy with curly hair and a white bow tie named for the artist Philip Guston. The Lubavitcher rabbi from Rogers and three of his children, two of them with carrot tops complementing a clear blue sky. The lady who raises Australian shepherds, her blue windbreaker said; a man who taught Alice Walton in junior high and who recalled her bouncing into class one day with a peanut-filled Coca-Cola and asking him if he wanted to see what it would do if she shook it up.

Museum curators, bicycle enthusiasts, doctors, politicians. Artists. The manager at the bar just off the square. Veterans celebrating Veterans Day. A small "Occupy Bentonville" contingent. A trio getting a better view of the festivities from the roof of Sam Walton's original Five and Dime store.

Strains of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" and Randy Newman's "My Country" ("This is my country, these are my people./This is the world I understand") played from the platform, decorated with huge Crystal Bridges banners set up on either side, until the astonishingly beautiful voices of the Bentonville High School choir began their performance with "Do Lord," the peal of the sopranos' refrain as beautiful as any heard on any stage ("you ought to hear the high school symphony," the shepherd lady said).

Leona Mitchell, a Chickasaw and African-American soprano from Oklahoma, sang the national anthem; Iroquois singer Joanne Shenandoah sang the "Eagle Cries."

You couldn't get more American than that to open Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Alice Walton's billion-dollar-plus gift to the Ozark town she grew up in, home of the largest retailer in the world, home of one of the planet's wealthiest families.

Architect Moshe Safdie, designer of grand facilities in Singapore, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and now Bentonville, praised Walton as "a force of nature." Then Sam and Helen Walton's daughter took the stage to a standing ovation and said, "This is it! 11-11-11." The opening was following three earlier ones, one an all-nighter for members, the others for dignitaries, artists, art dealers and friends.

Walton announced her plans for the museum in 2005, but she said recently it was an idea born in the 1990s. Opening two years past the expected date on Walton family land just off the downtown square, the museum's total worth — in building, art and endowment — is on its way (if not there already) to $2 billion.

A comic video with a Mission Impossible theme — a briefcase being handed off first to a black SUV, then to a Tyson truck, a J.B. Hunt truck, a Walmart truck, a bicycling crew headed by pony-tailed Tom Walton (Walton's nephew), museum Director Don Bacigalupi and finally to Alice Walton, who opened it to reveal a neon "Open" sign — and streamers shooting out from the stands ended the small-town ceremony and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks marching band struck up the William Tell Overture. Hi-yo, Silver! Off to the museum, anything but small-town. Attendance on Friday: 4,236. Counting the attendance at the pre-opening galas and reservations for Monday, 19,004 people will have been through Crystal Bridges before you've read this.

In the Tusk and Trotter the night before the opening, manager Rick Lambert — who'd moved to Bentonville from Williamsburg, Va., seven months ago to be near a new baby granddaughter — served up a dish of Trot On Over Here ice cream (sticky pudding cake flavored with coffee, medjol dates and brown sugar and shot through with a toffee-maple bacon brittle) and talked about how down-to-earth he finds the Waltons. (One of them, Tom, was in the bar that night with friends and yakking about his new-found upper lip — he'd just shaved off his mustache — with a reporter from the Benton County Daily Record.) Lambert said Alice Walton and her two brothers dined in Tusk and Trotter recently and he took the opportunity to tell them how much he loved living in Bentonville. He said Alice reached across the table, covered his hand with hers and said, "We're so glad you're here." These are genuine people, he said. No pretense about them.

The thriving bar scene at Tusk and Trotter (one of some 160 private clubs created to serve the Walmart vendors) in what is the most conservative corner of Arkansas, the Republican Northwest, where there are no fewer than six religious radio stations (not counting John Brown University's Christian contemporary music station) and a talk show warning of a New World Order and now a world-class museum, is emblematic of the contradictory nature of Bentonville. This is a town with a 20-mile bike trail system (largely thanks to Tom Walton), where the Phat Tire store on the square has supplied bikes to the high school for its campus trail. Where 78 percent of the voters in this town of only 35,301 souls approved a $110 million capital bond issue to finance street improvements (the square has been transformed with brick pathways and crosswalks and lighting and curbs) and $15.4 million for park expansion. The city has spent $46 million of it so far and it shows. Last year, the city opened Orchards Park on J Street across from the museum, a huge green space with a pond, tennis courts and an amphitheater. The Ernest Lawrence plaza features a splash park, frozen for ice skating in the winter. There's a yoga studio right around the corner from that symbol of American capitalism, the Walmart Visitors Center.

And, now, a museum of American art, with holdings of around a thousand masterworks covering four centuries and 50,000 items in its research library, set into 120 acres traversed by 3 and a half miles of trails.

A Facebook friend, a photorealist artist in New York, posted a gripe in mid-October that Alice Walton was "buying tons of art and moving it to Arkansas. ARRGH." She added: "It is sad to me that it is somewhere I am not likely to visit."

It is sad to me, as well, that I am surely going to miss the "David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy" sculpture exhibition now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

But I will gladly settle for a 1946 surrealistic oil by the famed mid-century artist that hints at the form his sculpture would take, which is on exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

(Arkansas now has two known David Smiths. The other is at the Arkansas Arts Center. Is that too much to ask?)

In May 2005, when Walton announced she would build the museum, the word was that it would be a $30 million museum holding $100 million in American art. Works from the colonial period through the 1950s would be featured. John Wilmerding, the Princeton professor and American painting expert — himself the son of famed collectors — told the Times after the announcement that the collection would include works by "every major American artist" but that it would not accommodate the monumental abstractions of the 1960s New York School. Too big, too pricy.

Since then, Alice Walton shucked Norman Rockwell's "Sick Puppy," one of the announced acquisitions at that 2005 press confab, and acquired Adolph Gottlieb's 185-by-80-inch abstract "Trinity" (1962), for a cool $1.1 million. With executive director Don Bacigalupi at her ear, Walton began adding late 20th century and contemporary work to the collection.

Speaking of ears: one of them is the gallery-filling "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)" by California artist John Baldessari. That giant resin ear and bronze trumpet, the Dan Flavin fluorescent lights and Lynda Benglis' aluminum blob "Eat Meat" are a far stylistic cry from "Kindred Spirits," the Asher Durand painting that gave Walton goose bumps when she first saw it.

In 2009, the museum's non-profit tax filings put the worth of the building at $150 million. In 2010, the Walton Family Foundation endowed the museum with $1.2 billion.

In an interview with Wilmerding recorded in the museum's hardback publication, "Celebrating the American Spirit," Walton recalls sitting at Sotheby's auction house in New York in 2005 looking at "Kindred Spirits," which Sotheby's was selling for the New York Public Library. She says: "It was a transformative moment for me in terms of taking this [museum] from what I perceived as a gift to the community to what I now think of as a gift to the nation."

Walton outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, paying $35 million for the painting. It gave New Yorkers goose bumps as well, the idea of the library's iconic double portrait of the poet William Cullen Bryant and painter Thomas Cole in a Catskills-inspired (but imaginary) gorge being grabbed for a museum in the Ozarks, for Pete's sake. Their protests were the first in a series of hostile reactions to the retail heiress' moves to acquire art ("rapacious," one writer called them). Her attempt to buy Thomas Eakins' famed "The Gross Clinic" from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia for $68 million raised another outcry — and Philadelphians eventually raised the dollars to match her offer and keep the painting in Philadelphia. (It may have been a mistake to let it go, she mused at a recent press gathering, but she says she's glad Philadelphia realized what it was about to lose.) The alumnae of Randolph-Macon College went crazy when Walton was said to be in discussions with the financially-strapped college to work out a deal to acquire works in the Maier Museum there. Her offer of $30 million to Fisk University in Nashville for a 50 percent share in its Stieglitz collection of American masterpieces triggered a long-running and yet to be resolved lawsuit against Fisk. Art critics speculated the collection — with its portraits of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart — would be a flag-draped celebration of America as the promised land, where a man from Bentonville could turn his five and dime into the world's largest (and most controversial) retailer.

Let's face it. If you think Alice Walton (worth $20.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine's latest count) has become the 10th richest person in America by driving small retailers into extinction, paying employees so little that they must rely on the beneficence of the rest of us to survive, most recently denying health insurance coverage to its part-time employees and squeezing its vendors' profits to the slimmest of margins, then you may be uncomfortable about the money poured into Crystal Bridges. Or think that the money shouldn't have been spent on art at all, and instead turned back to employees. You may never visit the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Frick, the Metropolitan, the Getty on such high-minded principles.

Or you may hold it against her that Bentonville state Rep. Horace Hardwick passed special legislation in 2005 making Crystal Bridges the only museum in the state exempt from paying sales tax on art acquisitions, a move that cost the state many millions. (Say the museum has spent $500 million on art — which if it hasn't it will — the state would have received $30 million in taxes, Benton County $5 million and Bentonville $2 million without the special law, a total that is walking-around money for the Waltons.)

You may not be awed by the trails through the 120-acre woodland ravine the museum is nestled into, miles of quiet paths punctuated by birdsong and sculpture and tall trees and native plants and burbling springs.

You may not want to be seduced by the searingly beautiful transcendentalist American landscapes hung upon lovely curving walls that architect Moshe Safdie designed to draw the eye into the distance. It may occur to you that these images of America, both grand and simple, are what the land looked like before Walmart (and other retailers) became the Johnny Appleseed of big-box stores, changing the landscape forever.

But the art, the architecture, the reflection of the glass bridges in the pond (filled with city water until the excavation silt is covered), their domed copper roofs supported by ribs of Arkansas pine and hung from cables, will pull you in; if you love art but suffer from a love/hate relationship with a Walton-built museum, the love part of the equation will bury your antipathy.

It may be the Waltons' work, but it is wondrous in our eyes.

Tell me you can look at the wall of Martin Johnson Heade's 19th century paintings of hummingbirds and butterflies from Brazil and wish them elsewhere. Heade was able to paint the blue of the morpho butterfly's wing and the scarlet of the hummingbird's throat as they appear in the real world — iridescent and unspeakably beautiful, so true to color that he abandoned his plans to reproduce them in print inks that couldn't approach the palette of the paintings. Heade's small landscape "Haystacks," a tiny oil of a wet meadow in late afternoon with storm clouds on the horizon, made me do a double take on a quick tour through the museum led by David Houston, director of curatorial; I had to abandon the group to scurry back to the painting and get a real look at it.

When the top brass at Sotheby's entered the colonial gallery, where Peale's painting of Washington glows against a celery-green wall, their jaws dropped, curator Houston said. He knew they had a hit on their hands. This was no stuffy collection of American art. And while it contains a series of portraits from an 18th century merchant family in New York, it's not making an argument for unfettered capitalism, as early art critics suggested it would be, but preserving an amazing, luminous record of a family in 1730s America.

In another gallery, 18th century paintings by Benjamin West, John Taylor and John Singleton Copley are hung together, a visual tribute to Benjamin Franklin's lament that the three were the best painters in England — and all American. "Our geniuses all go to Europe," he complained.

A man who identified himself as an Oklahoma legislator was raving at the red of the velvet background and green of a silk dress in the Copley portrait ("Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr.") "Why should New York City have a corner on this art?" he asked. Now, all our geniuses are in Arkansas.

Some masterworks have been in Arkansas for a while, as was the case with Thomas Moran's "Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn." Walton told reporters a couple of weeks ago that the art world considered the painting a "lost Moran." It was lost — behind the sofa at Bernice Jones' home in Springdale for 30 years. "Lost in Arkansas," Walton scoffed.

Dan and Linda Nelson came to Crystal Bridges on Friday from Little Rock just to see Durand's "Kindred Spirits" and the portraits of Washington by Peale and Stuart and then found themselves enthralled by Jasper Francis Cropsey's "The Backwoods of America," a romantic scene of a log cabin hard by a lake, its builder setting out with his dog to cut more wood.

On the other side of the museum, in a contemporary exhibit called "Wonder World," Eric Jackson, a sculpture student at the University of Arkansas, was on the floor inspecting the underside of Roxy Paine's "Bad Lawn," a sculpture of a muddy place sprouting mushrooms and weeds. "This is the best day of my life," he said, getting up and looking around the room. "What's so cool," he mused, was the juxtaposition of a "dirty thing" in the clean space of the gallery. Jackson wasn't the only observer heard to look at the paintings with a critic's eye; another young man in front of Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait's "A Tight Fix" was discussing with an older man how the hunter's knife was the equivalent of the bear's claws. They weren't speaking Art Forum lingo — nothing about relationality and so forth — but they were looking and thinking.

A wood carver in an A&W cap from North Little Rock stood so long in front of a trompe l'oeil painting of guns and pheasants hanging from antlers that his wife left him behind. "The perspective is probably the best I've seen," he said. "This fools the eye more than anything I've encountered."

Lisa Perez of Los Angeles and her daughter, Maggie, had been invited to Bentonville to see the museum by a friend, Mara Erwin. Lisa Perez loves Fairfield Porter, a representational painter in the 1960s whose "October Interior" was out of step with the abstract expressionists of the time. "It's amazing to be able to put together a collection like this," Perez said. She looked at her daughter and they agreed: Crystal Bridges was better than the Getty; the Getty, they said, was "not as compelling."

A visitor to a gallery featuring huge abstracts by Morris Louis and Ken Noland said he wasn't as moved by the modern works "yet." (He was especially baffled by "Eat Meat.") But he found powerful Alice Walker's silhouette of a hanged woman stitched to a tapestry depicting a fire at an orphanage, and studied for some time Kerry James Marshall's "Our Town," an African-American Dick and Jane scene in which Jane is making a black power fist as she rides her trike; a portion of the painting is covered in fat, white Basquiat-like lines. A crowd assembled in front of Jack Levine's 1983 "The Arms Brokers" identifying the faces in the dark red and black social realist work: Richard Nixon, Idi Amin, Henry Kissinger ...

Roger Montgomery, a Fayetteville internist, was sitting on a bench peering at a book on the works of Marsden Hartley in one of the museum's between-gallery reading rooms that let visitors take a rest. Seeing so much art — there are close to 500 works installed now — can be overwhelming. (A U of A student who moved to Arkansas from Chicago observed just how much art is hung on the walls compared to the galleries in his experience.)

Montgomery said he knew the collection was going to be good. "But I didn't know how good it was going to be," he said.

In the gallery Montgomery had just left, featuring work from the middle part of the 20th century, an older woman sat in a walker chair in front a 1940 Hartley painting, "Madawaska — Acadian Light-Heavy." She looked up at me and said, "I helped build this museum." She did? "I buy all my prescriptions at Sam's," she said. The gallery volunteer agreed. "It's really our museum," she said. Because everyone shops at Walmart.

Can we find ourselves a kindred spirit with Alice Walton? Sculptor Mark di Suvero could.

Di Suvero's sculpture "Lowell's Ocean," a monumental piece whose cut steel arms end in swirls and hard angles, came to Bentonville to install the work, which Walton saw at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. When he arrived on site, the ground was broken up and there were pipes lying around. "There were outhouses out there," he said. He said he couldn't install the work unless the area was leveled out. It quickly was.

The sculptor called Crystal Bridges "the marriage of community and capitalism." To those who wonder about Alice Walton's genuineness, "I suggest you shake hands with her. Hers are working hands." She has "chutzpah," he said. And Arkansas, he said, "is real America." He said he thought it was great that his sculpture is where Arkansans, and the rest of the country that will come to the middle, will see it.

Crystal Bridges is not as all-encompassing and majestic as the Metropolitan nor as risk-taking as the Whitney. Installation art is problematic, given its space. But it is a great collection and will grow to be greater. Which raises the question: "Wonder World" is in space that appears to have been originally planned as offices: oddly angled, no windows, along a hallway that leads to the Great Hall (a turtle-shaped space basking on the south of the upper pond). Won't Walton have to enlarge Crystal Bridges to match the growth of her vision?

There are plans for a new Walton Arts Center in Bentonville. There might be extra room there, of course.

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