When you hear the words “Bentonville, Arkansas,” you almost certainly think of Wal-Mart. But that could soon change—thanks to Sam Walton’s only daughter.
Alice L. Walton’s leadership—and capital—was crucial in the construction of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, which opened in 1998. Now she’s giving tourists a very good reason to use it. In November, she will open the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the culmination of a decade-long dream.
“Alice has been a serious collector of American art for a dozen or 15 years,” notes Don Bacigalupi, director of Crystal Bridges. “Probably 10 years ago or so, she had the vision of creating an American art museum in the center of the country, specifically northwest Arkansas, where her family grew up.” Bacigalupi says the picturesque area in the Ozark hills has a respectable performing arts tradition. “But there was a dearth of visual arts activities.”
Wal-Mart, the giant retailer that is the world’s largest public corporation, is headquartered in Bentonville. With the opening of Crystal Bridges, Bentonville will join the ranks of other small American cities with art museums of international reputation. The common denominator? “All of these great stories begin with someone with a vision and the means to meet that vision,” Bacigalupi says.
Take Toledo. Bacigalupi moved to Bentonville from the Ohio city, where in 1901 glassmaker Edward Drummond Libbey founded the Toledo Museum of Art. As Bacigalupi says, Toledo at the dawn of the century “was a growing, thriving business center, thanks largely to the glass industry.” It’s had its ups and downs since then. “But the museum is stalwart.”
Bacigalupi believes Crystal Bridges will be stalwart, too. He commends Walton for putting careful planning into the project, considering how it will thrive long after the ribbon is cut. “Fifty years from now, this community is likely to be different in terms of its population and demographics and the needs and expectations of an art museum,” he says. Established museums are putting “a great deal of effort and resources” into keeping up with new technology to stay relevant. “It takes a visionary family to think about that from the beginning.”
Then there’s Shepherdstown. The West Virginia town, with a population under a thousand, is known across the country because of its highly regarded Contemporary American Theater Festival. Bacigalupi calls attention to its proximity to Washington, D.C. “If you draw that [same] radius around where we are, you have an enormous population center: Kansas City, Tulsa, Little Rock, Memphis.” He’s confident Crystal Bridges will attract visitors to Bentonville from much farther afield.
That’s because the museum, thanks to Walton, has an American art collection to rival any in the country. (Among the paintings are Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits; Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, by John Singer Sargent; and a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington.) Some of its paintings are now on loan to London’s National Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other institutions. The museum’s 120-acre property includes a striking building designed by Moshe Safdie, two ponds, sculpture gardens, and walking trails leading to downtown Bentonville. Its first year will include an operating budget of $16–20 million.
The Walton Family Foundation, of which Alice is a board member, has already given it an endowment totaling $800 million. “By investing in the endowment of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, my family has laid a foundation on which this institution can continue to grow as a resource for our community, state, and nation,” says Alice. “This endowment investment is core to the foundation’s goal of further enhancing the quality of life in northwest Arkansas and enabling the region to continue to flourish.”
Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin is likewise excited about what Crystal Bridges will do for the region. “We’re going to see an economy expanded with cultural implications,” he predicts. Visitors need food and lodging when they come to feast their eyes on the art, after all. He compares a future Bentonville to the current Santa Fe, New Mexico, a UNESCO-designated “Creative City” that is home to, among other institutions, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Santa Fe Opera, which has premiered important works.
“Their economy is very much driven by the arts. It’s a hard-to-get-to place. Twenty years ago, people would ask, ‘Where?’” Now Santa Fe is a cultural destination attracting well over a million visitors a year. “A wide variety of things can happen in a free market when suddenly you have traffic that will support different venues,” McCaslin says, musing on the possibilities of artistic expansion. “In 1962, Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store. That was 49 years ago. The transformation of northwest Arkansas in particular has been phenomenal since that time,” he adds. “I think the opening of Crystal Bridges will mark another transition that will be equally significant.”
Crystal Bridges means more than simply a boost to the economic and cultural life of the city, however. He hopes this first-rate museum, the inspiration of a homegrown philanthropist and the first fruits of homegrown wealth, will transform not just the region, but the world’s perception of it. “Normally, just big cities have museums like this,” marvels McCaslin. “Any large world city, a Moscow, a London, a Buenos Aires, a Toronto, would love to have this facility being built in their city. It’s of that scale. It’s of world-class scale for a state that’s not known for that.”
Kelly Jane Torrance is an assistant editor at the Weekly Standard and a movie critic for the Washington Examiner.