Great Art in Middle America
Only major centers like New York and Boston can support great museums. Such is the conventional wisdom, but Alice Walton didn’t buy it. She had a vision of creating a superb American art museum in the center of the country, and inviting citizens to enjoy and learn from it in comfortable ways. As a successful investment banker and community developer, she had the savvy to guide the project.
And she had the means: Alice’s father Sam founded Walmart. The family already owned an extensive American art collection deemed one of the finest in the country, including works by Durand, Sargent, Peale, and others—centuries of American masterpieces.
And so in 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened about as far off the beaten path of elite art as one can get, in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum boasts a new Moshe Safdie building sited on 120 acres, a library, a sculpture garden, an operating budget of $16 million, and an endowment of over $800 million—and free admission sponsored by Walmart. In its first full year of operation, the museum brought in 565,488 visitors, more than double the number anticipated.
As this issue went to press, Crystal Bridges was featuring American masterworks from its permanent collection, an intriguing exhibit of American genre paintings from the 19th century, and a heavily attended exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings. Two new shows were about to open: Historic artifacts used by George Washington, and images of American girls featuring masterworks by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and others. —Karl Zinsmeister
Math and Science for All
New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, which has no entrance exam and serves primarily impoverished students, boasts a 97 percent state proficiency rate in science and 95 percent in math.
In 1992, three local college professors decided to try to improve high school science and math in the New Orleans region. They enlisted numerous business and civic leaders to their cause, and in 1992 opened the New Orleans Center for Science and Math, known as SciHigh, as a half-day program that students from any area public school could access. The program’s focus was underserved students, particularly African Americans. Its backers believed that most students could master high-level science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects if taught by the right people in the right culture. The school did not pre-select its students in any way—one of the few completely open STEM schools in the country.
Students quickly proved their teachers right, and 12 successful years followed. After Hurricane Katrina, the Center reopened as a full-time charter high school—the New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School. Three-quarters of its students are African-American, and a similar number qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Despite these traditional disadvantages to quality education, 97 percent of those kids pass the science section of the state exit exam on the first sitting, and 95 percent do so on the math section. The school offers seven AP classes (the most of any open-admission New Orleans school), and boasts a 93 percent annual graduation rate from its nearly 400 students. Its strength remains what its original private backers founded it to do: teach high-level math and science to everyone. —Karl Zinsmeister and Brian Brown
Saving Consecrated Ground
On a sweltering Fourth of July in Mississippi, exactly 150 years ago, General Ulysses S. Grant notched what many consider the greatest battlefield achievement in American history: the surrender of Vicksburg.
Perched high upon a Mississippi River bluff, the fortress city stood as a barrier to Union control of the western theater. It took a campaign of several months—and a siege of six weeks—to conquer the proud city. When it was complete, the Union had control of the west, and Grant had drawn the attention that would give him command of the armies of the North.
If you visit Vicksburg today, you will find the battlefield lately restored. For that you can thank John Nau, longtime CEO of the nation’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributor. Several years ago, he gave $300,000 to transform 90 acres of the Vicksburg theater to what they would have looked like 150 years before, largely unforested and open. The project, completed this year, allows visitors to relive the heat of battle.
Nau’s generosity extends beyond Vicksburg. He is one of the foremost philanthropists of America’s hallowed grounds. He has served on the National Parks Foundation, Texas State Historical Association, and Gilder-Lehrman Institute boards, led the Civil War Trust, and been appointed by the President to head the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
His deep interest in American history began when he was eight years old, during a family visit to a Civil War battlefield at Perryville, Kentucky. Walking the contested ground created a fascination and yearning in Nau that never faded. Thus did previous efforts to save one patch of consecrated land inspire—a generation later—the preservation of many, many more such sites. —Evan Sparks
Ralph Waldo Beeson was legendarily cheap when it came to treating himself. Once, when given some new corduroys, the insurance executive turned them down on account of already owning a pair. At his modest house just south of Birmingham, he often chose not to operate the air conditioning during brutal Alabama summers, saying it “costs a fortune to run that thing.” But just down the hill from his house, he had a view of Samford University—to which he was nothing but generous.
As a 29-year-old life insurance salesman, Beeson had poured his savings into the stock of his company, Liberty National, just after the crash of 1929. The bet paid off handsomely, and he cashed in for $100 million in the 1980s. From that windfall, he gave $70 million to create a new divinity school (a tribute to his father) at Samford. Knowing that its future clergy would be unlikely to hold high-paying jobs after graduation, Ralph went to great lengths to ensure that the seminary would be affordable. As a result, tuition is held to just a fraction of what comparable seminaries charge, even though the student body is capped at 180 to maximize teaching quality.
Beeson aimed for much more than just affordability, though. He told the founding (and current) dean, “Now, Timothy, I want you to keep things orthodox down there.” Moreover, “I want you to train pastors who can preach.” Thanks to Ralph’s clear guidance, 23 years after his death the school remains theologically orthodox and evangelical, and deeply grounded in the theology and discipline of the Protestant Reformation.
At the same time, Beeson Divinity School is distinctive in reflecting its donor’s Christian eclecticism: Ralph, a former Methodist, was married to a Baptist, and had become Presbyterian. Likewise, the divinity school, although located at a Baptist university, is interdenominational. That eclecticism is on display in the school’s architectural centerpiece, the beautiful Hodges Chapel (a gift from one of Beeson’s closest friends). It combines Palladian classicism with colonial American design, the cruciform footprint of a Catholic cathedral with a traditionally placed Protestant pulpit, and employs Renaissance-inspired art to celebrate Christian historical figures. The kind of generous mix one finds only in America. —Evan Sparks
Noah’s Ark in DeSoto County
Brad Kelley—a college dropout whose discount cigarette empire made him a billionaire—brews his own bourbon, never uses e-mail, sports a magnificent red goatee, sometimes wears a kilt, and owns more land than there are acres in the whole state of Rhode Island. Astonishingly, none of these are the most eccentric thing about him.
That honor undoubtedly goes to Rum Creek Ranch, Kelley’s 40,000-acre spread in southwest Florida where he breeds and raises endangered exotic animals. Kelley’s foray into animal conservation started with rare breeds of cattle. That led to the acquisition, over 2004 and 2005, of some 40,000 acres in DeSoto County, for a reported $50 million. Kelley now propagates multiple endangered species on that land, including tapirs, anoas (a three-foot-tall Indonesian buffalo), hippos, rhinos, bongos (an African mountain antelope featuring psychedelic white-yellow stripes and huge tapered horns), bentang (wild cattle), and others. Many of these animals had been reduced to just a handful of breeding pairs; Kelley’s ultimate goal is to work with zoos and conservation groups to reintroduce them in sustainable numbers to their native habitat. —Justin Torres
World’s Largest Aquarium
Not surprisingly for the man who brought the big-box store to the hardware business, when Bernie Marcus decided that Atlanta needed an aquarium, he wanted it to be large. And he got his wish: the Georgia Aquarium is the biggest in the world. Marcus was the co-founder of Home Depot, and after he decided to give a present to the Atlantans who made his stores successful by shopping at and staffing them, he went seeking something accessible that all kinds of people could enjoy. He ultimately gave $250 million to build and stock the giant fish tank, which opened in 2005 (see Philanthropy Fall 2012).
The centerpiece exhibit is an acrylic enclosure holding 6.3 million gallons of sea water and four whale sharks that many biologists did not believe could be successfully transported (by boat, truck, and plane) from Taiwan. The aquarium is also host to one of two sets of great hammerhead sharks, and the only four manta rays displayed in a U.S. aquarium. There are dolphins, Japanese spider crabs, black-footed penguins, and a new exhibit of sea otters.
While Marcus has said he’s just happy to see kids “plastered against the window watching fish go by,” the aquarium has also had a transformative effect on the depressed area near downtown where it is located. Described by Marcus as a tract full of “warehouses and whorehouses,” where local police warned visitors to stay out, the area has been revitalized since 2005. New restaurants, condos, and hotels have been built cheek-by-jowl with the blue metal and glass aquarium, pumping an estimated $4 billion into the local economy.
The facility is also home to the Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health, the world’s only integration of an aquarium and veterinarian teaching hospital. It uses 10,000 square feet to produce some of the leading research on conservation of sea creatures. Finally, the Georgia Aquarium is a major employer, offering jobs to 637 staff who care for 120,000 fish and animals, and inspiring 2,000 volunteers. The facility will host visitor number 20 million before long. —Justin Torres
Stimulated by Art
Last spring, a small town in South Carolina was transformed into a communal gallery for ten days. Lake City hosted a new art competition called ArtFields during April. Inspired by ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan (see Philanthropy Summer 2011), philanthropist Darla Moore wanted to create a similar wide-open art competition to help invigorate her home town. Though smaller in scale than ArtPrize, ArtFields offers the largest purse of any art competition in the southeast—a total of $100,000. With that incentive, artists displayed 400 pieces of art during this first event.
For Darla Moore, ArtFields is part of a broader goal of reinventing the local economy. “One aspect of what we’re doing happens to be culture and arts…. The key is community.” Having made her name in business by bringing companies back from the brink of bankruptcy, Moore is now combining her philanthropy and business acumen to boost the prosperity of the place she lives.
The first woman to be featured on the cover of Fortune, Moore began running Rainwater, Inc., in the late 1990s after joining her husband, Richard Rainwater, in his finance business in 1994. As she prepared for the inaugural run of ArtFields, Moore donned a green jacket at the Masters Golf Tournament, as one of the first two female members of Augusta National Golf Club (along with former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice). While the long-term economic impact of ArtFields remains to be seen, the founder of the feast is a woman who generally succeeds. —Kari Barbic
A New Museum for a New South
The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte has a tricky mission: to faithfully tell the story of the American southeast since 1865. It’s a period that brought the region Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, an economic boom, waves of northern and then international immigration, and tumultuous change. The museum has generally managed to tackle these complex and emotional topics with nuance and honesty, according to admirers. In 2005, the Levine was given the federal government’s highest award for community service by museums.
The Museum of the New South was founded in 1991, but it wasn’t until 2001, when Leon Levine offered a $1.5 million grant, that it reopened in its current incarnation: a 40,000-square-foot space in the city’s recently revitalized First Ward, with a permanent exhibition called “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers: Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont in the New South,” plus a range of special exhibitions. Two years ago, Levine announced a $3 million challenge grant for improvements to the museum.
The 76-year-old Levine opened a store called Family Dollar in Charlotte in 1959. The company has since grown to 7,600 stores in 45 states, and its progenitor has become a generous supporter of his region. “We want to help build the quality of life here,” Levine says of his hometown of Charlotte. And the managers of the Museum of the New South “have surpassed my expectations,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “There is no other place like it.”
“I remember talking to the museum’s founder, who convinced my wife and me that this would be a place where people would share their memories and life experiences, and that we’d all benefit from their lessons.” As the museum has grown in the 12 years since reopening, it has extended beyond the past to include events aimed at strengthening today’s community. It regularly hosts events tied to important current issues—like a discussion of problems in the city’s education system, and a bus tour of Charlotte’s neighborhoods.
Levine has always seen his stores as a service to people. Selling important household items at low cost at Family Dollar outlets allows people to have things they might not otherwise be able to afford. Knowing that he could fill difficult gaps for local families, he “consistently placed my stores in lower- to middle-income communities.” In his philanthropy today, as in his business, Levine likes to satisfy needs. —Eleanor Barkhorn
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