Inside This Issue - Opinion
Give Alice Walton some credit
August 1st, 2011
by David Pinto, Editor
"We invite all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art and the beauty of landscape."
— proposed mission statement for Crystal Bridges
It isn’t easy being Walmart — or a Walmart heiress.
Alice Walton, daughter of Sam, is completing one of the most ambitious and praiseworthy cultural projects yet undertaken in Arkansas — or anywhere in the American heartland. Sometime this fall, after four years of construction, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will open its doors in Bentonville, Ark., very near where Walton grew up and within the woodlands park in which she played as a child.
The 200,000-square-foot art museum, which will present a survey of American art from the Colonial period to the present, has been called by at least one art connoisseur one of the best collections of American art in a museum. Said another authority with welcome, if uncharacteristic, candor: "It will transform our field."
If the concept of altruism has any meaning in today’s society, Walton’s motives in spearheading, and largely funding, Crystal Bridges — the buildings and equipment have reportedly cost more than $100 million, a figure that does not include the cost of acquiring the collection — are altruistic. The goal is no less ambitious than to make Crystal Bridges a necessary destination for art enthusiasts. It is a goal that is very nearly within reach.
Yet her efforts, her motives, her instincts for and appreciation of art — all have been questioned, assailed, criticized, derided and dismissed.
Critics have been quick to condemn Walton’s project as little more than a self-centered attempt by the spoiled daughter of an American capitalist to gather up some of America’s most important paintings and display them in a part of the country where no one really cares, a criticism that disregards the fact that nearly all of America’s great museums have been built and financed with capitalist dollars.
Some critics deride the Crystal Bridges project simply because Walton is a descendent of the Walmart retail empire, one that uninformed observers claim has prospered by selling cheap goods, forcing smaller competitors out of business and outsourcing American jobs overseas. Walmart’s history, they naively and somewhat snidely claim, is antithetical to the art Walton has acquired and the values that that art represents.
Worse, some of Walton’s critics deride the wisdom of attempting to introduce a new level of culture to a portion of America that has for too long lived without many of its benefits, implying, of course, that Bentonville, a town of some 30,000 in northwest Arkansas, is somehow unworthy and ill equipped to appreciate the paintings that will adorn Crystal Bridges.
To her credit, Walton has shown herself to be largely immune to such misdirected criticism. Over time she has justly earned the respect of the museum establishment. She has been applauded for the intelligence, thoughtfulness and knowledge that have guided her art purchases. And she is recognized today as an authority on American art. Moreover, to guide her through the Crystal Bridges project she has consulted with and engaged some of the most highly regarded figures of both museum design and American art.
Personally, Walton has learned, over a lifetime as a member of the Walmart family, to shrug off criticism of her efforts, her lineage and the company her father built. “I haven’t ever heard of anything that Walmart hasn’t been blamed for,” she said recently in a story about Crystal Bridges that appeared in the New Yorker. "I don’t think Walmart causes anything." In defending the company she also defends the neighborhood in which she grew up. "Look at downtown Bentonville — it’s a very healthy downtown. It’s always been very healthy — and we’ve always had a Walmart."
Indeed, as the days tick by until the November opening, Crystal Bridges is increasingly surrounded by anticipation, excitement, regional enthusiasm and, most surprisingly, strong support within the art community. But perhaps the most overlooked advantage of the new museum appears to be its potential to teach young people about art. For some years Walton has donated money to give children in the Texas county that is her primary residence the opportunity to visit the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. In return she has received many thank you notes from the children. Among the most unanticipated and heart-warming comments have been those from children who had never before realized a museum was a place one could actually visit, a placethat would even allow kids to enter. "We thought," said one message, "that was for rich people. We didn’t know they would let us in."
How fortunate, then, that Alice Walton has turned her intelligence, her passion, her interest and her fortune toward the laudable and altruistic objective of bringing knowledge and culture to an area that has for too long lived with too little of each. And shame on those misguided and misinformed elitists who would deny this woman the plaudits she so richly deserves for this wonderful enterprise.