The collection that Walmart built
Opening soon: Alice Walton’s long-awaited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
By Brook S. Mason. Museums, Issue 229, November 2011
Published online: 08 November 2011
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is due to finally open on 11 November. The museum has been funded by Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart retail empire and, according to Forbes, the ninth richest person in the US, with a fortune estimated at $21bn.
The museum is the first institution devoted specifically to American art to open in over half a century and Walton has spent more than five years, and a huge amount of money, assembling its collection: 400 works from the 1,000-strong collection are expected to be part of the initial hang. However, with only weeks to go before the launch, Walton was the subject of an unwanted, last-minute sideshow: she was arrested for speeding and drink driving near Fort Worth, Texas, on 7 October, her 62nd birthday, and spent the night in Parker County jail.
The Crystal Bridges Museum, endowed with $800m from the Walton Family Foundation, is set in 120 acres of family-owned land near the centre of Bentonville. It was designed by Massachusetts-based architect Moshe Safdie and consists of 201,000 sq. ft of space, divided among nine pavilions surrounding two ponds. The buildings, lined with many windows and skylights, are made from reinforced concrete banded with western red cedar and topped by glinting copper roofs. Admission will be free, supported by a $20m donation from Walmart.
“Crystal Bridges is inspired architecturally by the Louisiana [the state museum of modern art in Humlebaek, north of Copenhagen] in the way the architecture connects with the landscape,” says Don Bacigalupi, the museum’s director and contemporary specialist, who was recruited from the Toledo Museum of Art.
Walton’s acquisitions span the colonial period to the present day (a Nick Cave “sound-suit” from 2010 features on the museum’s promotional material). According to John Wilmerding, emeritus professor of American Art at Princeton University, a Crystal Bridges board member and Walton’s key adviser on art for the past six years: “She moved in during the recession, with important pictures becoming available as some people felt pinched or wanted to weed. Paintings have come out of the woodwork and she’s taken advantage of that big time.” But, he says, “there are surprises”. Wilmerding cites Maria Oakey Dewing’s oil Rose Garden, 1901; Claes Oldenburg’s bronze Alphabet/GOOD HUMOR, 1972, bought for $962,500 at the Michael Crichton sale at Christie’s New York in May 2010; and Mark di Suvero’s Lowell’s Ocean, 2005-08, bought from Paula Cooper Gallery.
Nevertheless, the collection is far from comprehensive. “Colonial and modernism are strong but there’s a curious break with abstract expressionism and pop,” says the New York dealer Frederick Hill. “American impressionism needs beefing up.”
Wilmerding says the acquisitions process for the museum was “such a blur… we were buying at auction, from dealers and at private treaty [sales] and [from] other private collectors. [Walton] seeks out the smaller Southwest, Midwest and California dealers and we go to artists’ studios.” At Richard Estes’s studio, they picked up four pictures, says Wilmerding. “Around 20% [of acquisitions] was acquired at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.”
Walton also attempted to buy a 50% share of the Stieglitz collection, donated by Georgia O’Keeffe to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. A judge rejected the original proposal, ruling that it went against the donor’s wishes. But the university and the museum reached a deal whereby the two institutions will host the collection in alternate years (The Art Newspaper, November 2010, p18).
Coincidentally (or deliberately, depending on who you listen to), the Crystal Bridges Museum will open on the same day as the reopening of another American-history-focused institution, the New York Historical Society. “Some people have wondered about the timing, especially since some of the same people—donors, directors and curators—should be at both inaugural events,” Hill says. “Personally, I think it’s a coincidence and [Walton’s] focus on American art is a stroke of brilliance.”
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