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."
A group that seeks improved working conditions for Walmart employees took issue over "the fact that Walton has spent millions of dollars on a museum while her family's organization, Walmart, recently raised health care premiums and has capped salaries for many of its employees." Responding to such criticism, Abigail R. Esman wrote for forbes.com that "Ms. Walton has done everything absolutely right. She has done for little Bentonville what one would want every one of her socio-economic comrades to do: used her wealth to create job opportunities, enhance education, and support the arts (at a time when Washington is cutting back)."
We'd like to have heard Alice Walton's own response, but she seldom submits to interviews, and, through a spokesman, she turned down the Times' request as she has many others.
It's not uncommon in America for very rich people who've been ruthless in business dealings, indifferent at best to the suffering of their employees, to become huge supporters of art and education in their later years. Fricks, Mellons, Carnegies, Rockefellers — they were not nice guys necessarily, but gifts have merit independent of the giver, and America would be worse without the contributions to culture that such men have made.
The Times asked a couple of Arkansas historians to assess the impact of Alice. Is this museum big doings or what? Tom W. Dillard, who is also the head of special collections for the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville, wrote:
"I don't know of anyone who has ever made such a large and meaningful gift to the people of Arkansas (and the nation, too). I guess the argument could be made that [the late] Don Reynolds, through his foundation, has contributed mightily to non-profits throughout the state — but his gifts, even when taken together, do not have the dramatic impact that Crystal Bridges has. One might say that Mrs. Jeanette Rockefeller, before and during her time as first lady, broke the arts ground by helping transform the Arkansas Arts Center into a real arts museum — and creating the Arkansas Arts Mobile. I can recall as a child going to see the Arkansas Art Mobile when it visited rural Montgomery County deep in the Ouachita Mountains. But Crystal Bridges is a gift of a whole different order.
"The northern states are full of arts centers and museums endowed by 19th century Robber Barons. I don't think the Waltons are robber barons, but if they are, they're OUR ROBBER BARONS. After serving as a 'colony' for more than a century during which our natural resources and labor were shipped north, it is about time that Arkansas received some payback. ... A museum cannot transform Arkansas, but it can, and I believe will, have a positive impact on the way Arkansans view their state — and, hopefully, themselves."
Dr. Sondra Gordy, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, also recalled the Rockefeller gifts to the Arts Center, and the support of the arts and education that came from Lily Peter of Marvell. "But Crystal Bridges tops anything that was done in the past," she said.
"All of us who teach Arkansas history know the state was saddled by an image that outsiders gave us. But how can people come to beautiful Northwest Arkansas, and see that magnificent gallery, and go away thinking we're a backwater place. ... The Rockefellers campaigned to eradicate hookworm. I'm for any of the rich who are willing to share their wealth, even if I may not approve of the way they made their money. People have looked at the South for years and said we need something like this [Crystal Bridges]. I'm happy to get it anyway we can get it."
A newspaper reporter recalls the thrill of discovering the public library, as a young boy in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A Carnegie library, it was. Did Andrew Carnegie say "Let them eat books?" Did the king of steel, the scourge of steelworkers, believe that he was buying his way into heaven? The boy would have thought the questions irrelevant even if he'd known who Carnegie was. Many years and thousands of books later, he's still never declined to read one because it came from a Carnegie library.
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