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The good news is that an important painting by Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand will eventually make its way to a new Arkansas museum.
The bad news — depending on how you look at it — is that there’s some doubt the state will benefit from what should be a state and local sales tax of some $3 million.
Not all states require charitable institutions, including art museums, to pay sales taxes, but Arkansas does. Except now there’s about to be a single exception. When Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton decided to build a new museum dedicated to American art and locate it in Bentonville, her state representative, Horace Hardwick, R-Bentonville, persuaded the Arkansas legislature in the session just ended to exempt Walton’s museum from its purchases. That law has not taken effect, however.
(The law didn’t exempt the Walton museum by name, but was written in such a way to apply to it and no other.)
Walton purchased the painting from the New York Public Library in a sealed-bid sale by Sotheby’s auction house. The purchase price was not disclosed, but the New York Times said the price exceeded $35 million, a record for American art at auction.
New Yorkers have lamented the library’s sale, which was to raise money for an endowment. An op-ed writer in the New York Times said the piece inspired Frederick Law Olmstead’s design for Central Park, adding: “A big-name billionaire has shelled out a king’s ransom for the picture and New Yorkers may finally realize what they lost.” Some of the criticism has exhibited a certain amount of snobbery about art in the backwoods of Arkansas. On-line art critic and consultant Todd Gibson wrote Friday in fromthefloor.blogspot.com that he’s “afraid that the Durand is heading off to a collection of American art that will be consistently curated to make didactic, patriotic arguments. … I’ll bet it’s just a matter of time before reproductions of this work, and the many others Walton has been acquiring, will be available in every Wal-Mart around the country.”
The question now is whether the purchase of the Durand is tax exempt. The Arkansas law exempting a nonprofit museum doesn’t go into effect until 90 days after the General Assembly’s adjournment last Friday and the sale seems to have been completed. The new act also applies only to non-profit museums. The Walton Family Foundation announced it was the entity that purchased the Durand, not a museum.
It’s not clear, however, that the purchase has officially been made. Fred Lindeberg, spokesman for the Walton Museum, would say only that Walton made the winning bid and that “for all intents and purposes” the painting was sold.
According to Tim Leathers of the state Department of Finance and Administration, sales and use taxes are due at the time of purchase of an item to be stored or used, or the buyer may pay the tax at the time he files his income tax form. Leathers declined to discuss the specific sale, saying he was prohibited by law. He said, however, that the state routinely audits businesses for out-of-state purchases. Because of tax law secrecy, it’s likely Arkansans will never know if this painting was taxed or even if an effort was made to collect the tax. The Waltons could say if they chose.
In a press release, the Walton Family Foundation said Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie would design the museum, which when it opens in 2009 will be named “Crystal Bridges,” inspired by a design of glass and wood that will traverse a spring-fed stream. No location has been announced, though the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas has said it will be on Northeast J St. A press conference will provide more details May 23 at Bentonville. The museum will “present perspectives on the flow of America’s history and heritage through the eyes of the nation’s most influential artists.”
In a follow-up story, the New York Times reported that Walton has been “a quiet but significant presence in the field of American art for the last 15 years” and is known for making her own buying decisions.