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She’s showing them 

IN HER OWN BACKYARD: Alice Walton is using her fortune to fund Crystal Bridges in Bentonville.
  • IN HER OWN BACKYARD: Alice Walton is using her fortune to fund Crystal Bridges in Bentonville.

Just because billionaire Alice Walton was raised in the hills of Arkansas does not mean she is the wrong person to build a great museum of American art.

Just because her museum will be located in Bentonville and not on either coast does not mean that Americans will be deprived of beloved historical paintings.

Those who knitted their eyebrows at the news that a first class museum of American art would arise in the Ozarks might want to consider this: Bentonville has an airport. They can use it.

New York art critics who beat their breasts over losing Arthur Durand's Hudson Valley masterpiece “Kindred Spirits” to the boonies (one writer said Walton had “raided” the New York Public Library to get her hands on it) should take a look around at the art looted from abroad in their own museums.

And those who criticize Alice Walton because the money she's investing in art derives from her interest in the world's biggest and often-criticized retailer should consider: How many fortunes that helped build the nation's museums were made in a socially laudable way? Do they avoid the Whitney because of Mrs. Whitney's mother-in-law's ties to Standard Oil? (Should we shun the Arkansas Arts Center, once propped up by Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller, for the same reason?)

Two years ago, Alice Walton, 58, formally revealed her plans to build a $50 million museum for the public on her family's own 100-acre woods north of the Bentonville town square, and fill it with American artwork worth many times the building's tab.

At the time, she made public eight of the 100 or so works she'd bought for the museum: the Durand, Charles Wilson Peale's portrait of George Washington, Winslow Homer's “Spring,” Charles Bird King's portrait “Ottoe Half Chief,” and paintings by John La Farge, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, Marsden Hartley and, yes, Norman Rockwell. The particular paintings portrayed less about the museum than did architect Moshe Safdie's plans for the building, a modernistic glass and wood structure that will straddle a pond created from the waters of Crystal Springs and other tributaries on the property. Even the name of the museum — Crystal Bridges — was criticized for suggesting, one blog said, the name of a strip tease artist. Another made nasty remarks about “Walm-Art,” predicting jigsaw puzzles of “Kindred Spirits” in the aisles of the discount store and an art collection that would wave the red, white and blue with yellow smiley faces tucked in here and there.

Crystal Bridges director Bob Workman — the former director of the Amon Carter Museum of American art in Fort Worth, not too far from Walton's home in Mineral Springs — laughs at the suggestion the collection will be purely patriotic. “We didn't buy the Willard,” he says, referring to Archibald Willard's “Spirit of '76,” which sold at auction last November.

What they have bought is a closely held secret, and Workman, probably the happiest museum director in America, has a gleeful, canary-swallowing grin when he talks about its unidentified treasures.

Here's what Workman will say: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will engage Bentonville and beyond with some of the best examples of American art in public hands, bolstered by related artifacts to add context and historical depth. The collection will have “big surprises,” Workman said, that, like “Kindred Spirits,” will be a major draw.

A first-class library will attract art scholars with its archival material and other resources, and programming centered on the museum's collection as well as traveling exhibits and loans will be offered to schools and the public at large.

“Education is the very cornerstone of Crystal Bridges and something we are passionate about,” the lanky and relaxed-looking Walton told a small crowd assembled for the May 3 dedication of the museum. It was a characteristically low-key affair with entertainment by Bentonville High School girls on wind instruments and a stepless stage that Walton, laughing, had to hoist herself onto in front of everyone to reach the microphone. “We will create environments and experiences that will enable all [she stressed] people to see great art,” she said. “It will be a one-of-a kind cultural center.”

Indeed, said Marc Porter, the president of Christie's Americas auction house in New York City, the museum will be unique. It will house a nearly encyclopedic collection, Porter believes, of “A plus” works of American artists rather than “A minus.” (Christie's sold Walton one of those “A plus” works: the Peale portrait of Washington, which she paid $6.1 million for in 2004. Christie's has surely sold more to her, but Walton does not bid publicly.)

“What's so extraordinary,” Porter said, is Walton's “commitment to build a public collection” and her focus on American art. “She is shouldering a cultural responsibility that a government does,” when it creates museums — like the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for example.

Alice Walton “lives for cutting horses and American art,” said Patti Junker, the curator of American art at the Seattle Art Museum. “She's so unpretentious.”

Junker, like Workman formerly associated with the Amon Carter Museum, got to know Walton in Texas, where they “bonded over American art.” Junker recalled Walton bringing her mother, Helen, and hands from her horse ranch in Mineral Wells to the Amon Carter in celebration of Helen Walton's birthday. “We spent hours in the museum,” Junker said. “She would elicit comments” from the group, asking, “What do you think?” Then she announced they were all headed for the ballet that evening.

Walton money has also paid for programs to bring kids from rural Texas to the cities to see visual and performing arts.

“What she is doing is so noble and so important,” Junker. It's also a boon for the Seattle Art Museum, which is building its own American collection and where the most recent Crystal Bridges acquisition to be made public, Dennis Miller Bunker's “Portrait of Anne Page,” is on loan. Junker looks forward to collaborating with Crystal Bridges.

American art is an underappreciated area, Junker noted. Though the foundation-funded Amon Carter didn't charge fees (an issue Workman is pondering), the Kimball Art Museum across the street did, and still pulled in a larger crowd. When the Carter paired a show of work by Sanford Gifford, an American deeply influenced by J.M.W. Turner, with a Turner show at the Kimball, the Kimball pulled in 80,000 visitors, the Carter 8,000, Junker said. “There is still more of a cache with European art.”

“I don't know what the Bentonville audience is like and whether it will get a national audience. It will take some effort,” she added. “The best thing they've done is buy the greatest pictures. People will go see the Durand and other things.”

There's not much museum competition in Bentonville, either, unless you count the arrowhead museum off the square downtown and the variety store that Sam Walton once managed that now is a small museum to the retail colossus he founded.

Crystal Bridges, which is scheduled to open in late 2009, will have 20,000 square feet of gallery space, a little more than the Arkansas Arts Center. Its acquisitions budget, however, is a tad larger than the $150,000 the Arts Center has been able to set aside every year. The eight pieces whose purchase prices are known add up to $57.7 million, and the museum will open with some 200 to 250 works, Workman said. (The Durand accounts for $35 million of that sum.)

Only 17 acquisitions have been made public. “You have just a hint of what we'll show you,” Walton told the May gathering, seated on folded chairs in what she called the “footprint” of the museum, now a vast red clay bite out of the hills of her woods. The museum, she said, will “rival most museums in this country.”

Walton has pulled the work together in collaboration with director Workman; curator Chris Crosman, a specialist in American art who came to Crystal Bridges from the William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum in Rockland, Maine; and the prominent Princeton art historian, collector and author John Wilmerding, a member of the board of directors of the National Gallery of Art. Not only do they know their subject matter, they know where to find the work.

There's give and take in the decision-making, Workman said. “We don't always agree. I've seen each of us win.”

Workman said there is “real depth to the collection,” especially in the 19th century works, and many will have strong historical significance. (He says it won't be “encyclopedic” — Porter's description — for at least another 10 years, however.) Its 20th century pieces will include “major works” in modernism, and while the original cutoff for the museum was the mid-20th century, later works “in the realist tradition” are now being looked at. There will be abstract works, but “more the earlier abstracts.” It will encompass “key moments in American art,” with historical value largely secondary to aesthetics.

Workman's own expertise is social realism of the 1930s and '40s and American landscapes.

Another purchase made public this year was Thomas Eakins' “Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand,” which Walton bought from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Christie's Porter said the work is “Eakins at his most dazzling moment” of painterliness.

Walton bought the Eakins portrait after she and the National Gallery, on whose Trustees Council she sits, failed in their bid to buy Eakins' masterpiece “The Gross Clinic” from the university. Their purchase offer included a clause that allowed time for local institutions to match the price, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, responding to a public outcry not to let another beloved artwork be spirited away a la “Kindred Spirits,” came up with the $68 million Walton and the National Gallery had offered. “Art won,” Workman said of the rebuff. “We're thrilled it was a passionate focal point of community pride.” Someday, he said, Bentonville will understand that same feeling of ownership of great works of art.

Since then, Philadelphians have felt a touch more pain: To come up with the $68 million to buy “The Gross Clinic,” the Pennsylvania Academy sold to an anonymous buyer another Eakins, “The Cello Player.” (The Academy maintains it does not know who the purchaser was, but that the middleman said it was not Walton. Who knows?) And in March, a representative of the Philadelphia Museum of Art confirmed the museum had been considering deaccessioning some of its holdings, including yet another Eakins, to help buy “The Gross Clinic.”

To build a great collection of American art, little of which is in private hands, Walton must look to public institutions, and future purchases are bound to cause hard feelings. One of those institutions may be Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Va., which is considering selling some of the masterpieces from its Maier Museum because of the school's serious financial difficulties. Walton's jet was in Lynchburg on May 9, and sources confirmed to local press that she was on campus. The Maier is nationally recognized for its collection of American art, including works by Eakins, Georgia O'Keefe, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Bowen Davies, Robert Henri, George Bellows, Milton Avery and other outstanding artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the case of Randolph-Macon, it's the college's interest in selling, not Alice Walton's in buying, that's drawing the heat.

Walton's deep pockets — as Workman gentlemanly said, “We have some liberty” — and the fact that she's building a museum has made private holders of American art “more comfortable” in selling their treasures, Porter said. (Death, debt and divorce are said to be the three horsemen of such sales.) Her buying and serious competition from Bill Gates and other well-heeled lovers of American art have surely played a role in the steeply rising prices American artworks have been bringing in at auction the past several years.

In December 2004, just a few months before Walton held her first Crystal Bridges press conference, Sotheby's auction house in New York held a sale of the collection of Rita and Daniel Fraad, described by Ann Berman of Maine Antiques Digest as “one of the last great caches of American paintings left in private hands.” Other American paintings “came out of the woodwork” for the auction, she reported, and record sales were made as a result — $107 million, $40 million higher than any previous sale of American artwork and producing record prices for 33 artists.

In a blow-by-blow of the auction, MAD described heated bidding for several lots, with the winning bid made by an anonymous buyer on the phone. “At this point,” Berman wrote, “people began to wonder: With almost every collector one could think of present in the room, who the heck could be on the phone?”

Alice Walton was certainly a phone bidder on some of the works, because that is where “Ottoe Half Chief” and “Portrait of Anne Page” were auctioned. The auction house estimate for Charles Bird King's painting was $150,000-$250,000; the painting sold for $1.35 million. Bunker's “Anne Page” was sold for $3.59 million, three times its estimate.

“While American paintings have sold for a lot of money before, observers felt that with this sale, a corner has been turned.”

That would be the corner of Third and Main streets in Bentonville, where the pedestrian entrance to Crystal Bridges Museum will be.

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