Saturday, March 15, 2014

Crystal Bridges Museum and the Spirit of Alice Walton

View of Eleven Restaurant from wing of Crystal Bridges Museum

Alice L. Walton is the 8th richest person in the United States, having inherited a great deal of Wal-Mart stock from her father, Sam Walton.  Divorced, with no children, she splits time between her ranch outside of Ft. Worth, Texas and Bentonville, Arkansas.   Most visitors to Bentonville  have business with the corporate home office of Wal-Mart - second largest corporation in the world. But with the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum two years ago, Alice Walton wanted to add another purpose to that journey and she succeeded beautifully.


I began hearing of this museum from friends and the press.  All wondered how such a first class art museum could land in a town of 38,284 inhabitants.  The answer lies with Alice Walton, who used to paint with her mother on childhood camping trips, beginning a life-long love and collection of water color paintings. There’s something about being a multi-billionaire that causes one to consider their legacy.  America has been blessed with Carnegie libraries and Rockefeller Foundation grants.  Following in this tradition is Walton’s desire to build an accessible art museum featuring American Art.  Walton knew museums drew from a 300 mile radius for visitors.  If a circle were drawn around each major art center in the U.S., a large blank area existed in northwestern Arkansas and Ms. Walton wanted to change that. 

View of Crystal Bridges Museum from above
Placed on the 120 acre family home place, Walton worked with architect Moshe Safdie to minimize intrusion of the museum on the beautiful natural surroundings of hard wood forest .  They were so successful that I was shocked as I parked on the upper level and walked  to the small building above ground.  Below, nestled in a ravine, was the complex of five connected buildings, much larger than expected and completely invisible from the road.  With glass walls peering into the ponds below, reflections doubled the beautiful late afternoon lighting.  

Sign welcomes visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum
From the moment of arrival, I felt Alice Walton’s presence.  Entry was free thanks to a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart with only a small cost to view the visiting private collection of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.  We had dinner reservations at the restaurant Eleven, placed on the bridge across the stream.  Soft live music warmed the space.  My companion knew the chef and he soon came out to visit.  I asked if Ms. Walton ever came to the museum.  Quite often, he said.  In fact, she would sit down with patrons and visit to be sure they were enjoying themselves.  “Did she happen to be here this evening?”  “Maybe,” he said.
Eleven Restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum
After dining, we joined our guide for an evening tour, a wonderful time to see the museum.  Thanks to an endowment of $800 million from the Walton Family Foundation, largest single gift to a museum in American history, Ms. Walton and her advisors have been able to outbid others to present a cogent history of American Art.  A few pieces stand out.  Straight from the New York Public Library at a reported cost of $35 million is Asher Durand's masterpiece "Kindred Spirits," a mid-1800s ethereal painting of two men on a cliff pondering the distant Catskill Mountains. In sharp contrast is “Rosy the Riveter”, a crowd favorite by Norman Rockwall, portraying the strength of America in a single woman worker whose feet push firmly down on Hitler’s Mein Kampf .  A new arrival is the realist Edward Hopper’s somber Blackwell’s Island painted with his usual rich colors.   I thought it appropriate to display some works of Thomas Hart Benton for whose uncle the town of Bentonville is named.
Feet of Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

As we were leaving, we walked through a gallery with a show of water colors that had just opened that night.  These were from Alice Walton’s own collection which will be permanently given to the museum upon her death.  Turning to the gallery’s guard, I asked if Ms. Walton had been there that evening for the opening.  He said, “Oh, yes.  About 6 pm” - the exact time I asked the chef of her. 

Plans continue for the site.  Our guide announced a recent purchase of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in New Jersey  to be dismantled and rebuilt on the grounds.  Shows and lectures fill the calendar.  Yet the art world buzzes as to whether the museum can become and sustain itself as a big player in America.  I can’t contribute to that discussion.  But while I missed meeting Ms. Walton, I do know it’s easy to feel her influence and commitment to bringing our country’s art history to those outside the big cities. Paris is 254 miles from Bentonville - just inside that 300 mile circle Alice Walton drew.  A four hour drive brings you face to face with America’s art in a stunning setting - not bad for a small town in Arkansas.  

Edward Hopper's Blackwell's Island
by Thomas Hart Benton
by Andy Warhol
















Crystal Bridges Museum  http://crystalbridges.org/ 

0 comments:

Blog Archive

Stats

Followers