Why Does Her Money Scare the Art World?
Alice Walton is a billionaire, and she’s building a major museum in small-town Bentonville, Ark. That makes the art elites a little jumpy.
Hannah Thomson (left); rendering by John Horner
Wal-Mart heiress Walton (right), and a model of her Crystal Bridges art museum
By Cathleen McGuigan
June 18, 2007 issue – Alice Walton made a deal last November to buy Thomas Eakins’s 1876 masterpiece “The Gross Clinic” from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia for $68 million. Walton (Sam’s daughter and Wal-Mart heiress) wanted it not for her living room but to hang in the public museum she’s creating in her hometown of Bentonville, Ark. “This is the holy grail of American painting,” said John Wilmerding, a trustee of the National Gallery and Walton’s art adviser. But Wilmerding should have remembered that the holy grail is elusive. When news of the sale broke, the City of Brotherly Love went ballistic. Thanks to a clause in the deal, Philadelphia was given 45 days to match the price. Locals turned their pockets inside out, whether it was an art student’s dropping a few bucks in a coffee can or the Annenberg Foundation’s rushing a $10 million gift. Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, thought losing “The Gross Clinic” would be like Amsterdam’s losing Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” The huge, dramatic painting of Dr. Samuel Gross, gesturing to medical students with his bloody scalpel as he performs surgery, “is a picture that’s all knotted up with Philadelphia and its excellence,” says Philadelphia Museum curator Kathleen Foster. “It’s about teaching, medicine and the fine arts, all still important in this city.” With the help of a bridge loan, the Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts managed to buy the painting away from Walton. It is hanging now at the Academy, where Eakins was both a student and a teacher (and where he was fired in 1886 for removing a male model’s loincloth during a class with female students). Walton had to settle for a beautiful consolation prize: a smaller, richly detailed Eakins portrait of Dr. Benjamin Rand for a reported $20 million.
The idea that a great work of art could stir up such civic outpouring in our globalized, digitized age is a wonderful notion. But can a city claim cultural patrimony? With artwork commonly crisscrossing national borders, when does such a local argument make sense? “The whole concept of cultural property and what it means is an extraordinarily complex issue,” says Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “Is it fair for an individual to buy a painting for an institution and remove it to another city? There’s not a right or wrong answer.”
Walton’s taste, determination and deep pockets are clearly making some people in the art world very nervous. Art patrons say it’s great that she’s founding a museum in the heartland?but when the richest woman in America (estimated worth: $15.5 billion) snaps up a beloved painting from the Eastern establishment and wants to truck it back to Arkansas, many of those same patrons freak out. And it may not be just a question of cultural patrimony. Isn’t there a whiff of cultural snobbery here?a little like the exasperation expressed not long ago by Wal-Mart’s CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. over his failure to crack Manhattan’s resistance to opening one of his stores?
In Bentonville (population: 28,000 and growing), construction has begun on the museum itself, which Walton (who would not be interviewed) calls Crystal Bridges. Walton, 57, lives on a 3,200-acre ranch near Ft. Worth, Texas, where she raises champion cutting horses. She has long nursed a love of art, as a serious watercolorist and as someone who’s been collecting art for 25 years. Her museum, designed by the Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, will be a complex of six glass-and-wood pavilions, with two ponds and a sculpture garden, that’s set within a 100-acre, partly wooded site, to take advantage of the natural beauty of the surroundings. When it opens in late 2009, it is expected to draw 250,000 visitors a year to Bentonville, according to museum estimates. The collection of American art that Walton is assembling includes Native American and regional pieces, and ranges from the Colonial era into the 20th century. “She’s intensely involved in telling the story of America through its art,” says Safdie.
But the art world is still not sure what to make of Walton. The Brooklyn Museum is currently host to a splendid exhibition of the Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand?and the centerpiece is a loan from Walton of Durand’s best-known work, “Kindred Spirits.” When Walton bought it in 2005 for a reported $35 million from the New York Public Library, where it had hung for a century, she created a tempest similar to the one in Philadelphia. And when Walton turns up in a distant city to look at art, the locals can get jumpy. Last month the newspaper in Lynchburg, Va., gave a detailed account of her private jet’s flight plan after it was spotted at the airport?supposedly because she was checking out the fine collection at Randolph-Macon College’s Maier Museum of Art.
Starting a museum from scratch is a daunting task. “There’s not a high amount of high-quality material out there,” says John Walsh, former director of the Getty in Los Angeles, who led that cash-rich new museum in the 1980s (and took some heat for some purchases). “But the sheer amount of money she has to spend will get her a high proportion of what she wants over time.” Walton appears to be a careful shopper who’s turned down second-rate examples of first-rate artists?and she’s not willing to pay the moon just because she can. In 2005, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., joined with Walton to bid at Sotheby’s on a “really terrific Grant Wood landscape,” according to Nelson-Atkins director Marc Wilson. But the bidding went beyond their cap of $7 million, and they didn’t get the picture. “She’s a smart businesswoman,” says Wilson. “She does not go out there limitless.”
Walton has still managed to assemble an enormous amount of art for the museum. “We could open tomorrow,” says a source who asked not to be named discussing the museum so far in advance of the opening. “We’ve got a lot!” The collection includes Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. Though the museum will exhibit some abstract art and contemporary work?Walton has commissioned a site-specific piece from James Turrell, for example?most of the 20th-century painting will focus on American realism (Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benton, among others). The collection will continue to evolve. “This is not the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a collection frozen in time by the founder,” says executive director Robert Workman.
Despite the controversies over “Kindred Spirits” and “The Gross Clinic,” Walton is earning the respect of a number of museum directors?partly because she’s going
out of her way to be collegial. She’s sharing her treasures: she not only lent “Kindred Spirits” to the Durand show, but she is allowing a rare suite of Colonial portraits of the Levy-Franks family to go on view at the Jewish Museum in New York. In a gracious gesture, her beautiful Eakins portrait of Dr. Rand is now on loan at the Philadelphia Museum. And Crystal Bridges is counting on borrowing art from other museums and private collectors to fill gaps while it continues to build its collection, as well as sharing temporary exhibitions with other museums. Last week Walton turned up at the gala opening of the new wing of the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, socializing easily?and taking in every detail of the design, right down to the floors in the galleries. “Alice is the latest star in our constellation,” says Wilson. Maybe even a kindred spirit.
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