Articles about Alice Walton and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art have tended to focus on big numbers: an $800 million endowment, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of artwork, 200,000 square feet of museum space, 250,000 people expected to visit the Bentonville showplace yearly. All this extravagance does not even factor in the vast family fortune: Alice Walton alone is estimated to be worth $21 billion.
What the stories haven’t done is explain why Walton, the only daughter of Wal-mart founder Sam Walton, chose art as her way to give, not just to northwest Arkansas but also to the entire world. The explanation turns out to be pretty simple. She loves art; she finds it transformative, spiritual. She loves American history, and American art tells the American story. She wants to share these loves.
And she loved her mother, Helen, who introduced Alice to drawing and watercolors and encouraged her to express herself through these media. Art was a bond between Walton and her mother, who died in 2007, two years after plans for the museum were announced. “When I was growing up, I used to love to draw and do watercolors,” Walton said, “and Mom was an active participant in that. We used to draw and watercolor together. Then, whenever we went on family camping trips, I would always take my watercolors and do very amateurish scenes of the landscapes.”
Walton calls that time spent creating with her mother precious. It formed a bond between the pair that neither time nor death can dissolve. By the time Mrs. Walton reached 80, she was, Alice said, somewhat limited in what she could do. But among the “things she loved the most were her weekly art classes. She was still doing watercolors the last years of her life.”
Her mother’s love of art, the love she passed on to her daughter, has “had a huge impact on me and is one of the real motivations for Crystal Bridges,” Walton said. “I hope that a lot of other mothers and daughters and fathers and sons or daughters can use this facility and this institution to make those connections.”
Alice Walton grew up in Bentonville but now lives on a horse ranch near Fort Worth, Texas. She is a private woman, though she came across as warm and friendly in a September telephone interview. When asked what she hopes the museum will achieve, she grows expansive. “I want our children and the people in this whole region—and by region, I’m talking 300-mile radius, within a day’s drive—to become comfortable and familiar with art and to better learn the history of this country through their experiences at Crystal Bridges. And I particularly want children, schoolchildren, to have the opportunity to experience the art and to relate it to their lessons.”
She continued, “On an international basis, I think our major mission is to promote American art to the rest of the world, not just to Americans. It’s a very young field that has much research and scholarship to be done, so it’s an extremely exciting field. I hope that the efforts we make on the research and the scholarship side and what we can ultimately offer in terms of scholarship in American art can make a difference in the knowledge of American art throughout the world.”
She never thought of locating the museum, expected to exhibit one of the greatest collections of American art in the world, anywhere other than northwest Arkansas. In fact, she laughs at the idea. The museum, scheduled to open November 11, occupies a 120-acre park that once belonged to the Walton family and is dedicated to the memory of Helen Walton. The site is adjacent to the house, designed by the late architect Fay Jones, in which the Walton children were raised.
Walton might have chosen a different site, she said, but locating the museum near Bentonville was important because “we wanted the impact to be a positive one for northwest Arkansas.”
The “we” is the Walton family. Although Alice is the driving force behind Crystal Bridges, the Walton Family Foundation established the $800 million endowment that will fund the museum “in perpetuity,” and it is an undertaking of both the family and the foundation. The announcement of the endowment, believed to be one of the largest museum endowments ever, came in May. It was followed in July by the announcement that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., was giving the Bentonville museum a $20 million grant to cover admission fees for all visitors. The grant is intended to make admission to the museum free in perpetuity—forever, in other words, or as forever as anything can be in an uncertain world. A $10 admission fee for adults had been under consideration before the grant announcement, the museum said.
Although easily able to articulate what she hopes the museum will achieve, Walton chooses her words slowly and carefully when asked to explain the importance of art in her life and to the lives of museum visitors. “I think the world and the digital age that we’re in is very much a straight-line thought process, and I think that art is not. I think that spiritual connections are not, for example,” she said. “And I think people today have much less exposure to the non-straight-line-type aesthetic. I don’t know how else to put it. There’s a better word, I’m sure,” again laughing, “but I think that students today and people in general—just with the digital age we’re in—have much less exposure to art, things related to art than they used to have. And I think for that reason it’s much more important.
“I love art, and I don’t have to know anything about a piece of art to look at it and to ask questions and give myself answers and have a whole internal dialogue with a painting,” she said. “But as I have learned more about a painting, and as I’ve learned more about an artist and the social situation or the context that a piece is painted in, it becomes even more meaningful. I don’t believe that schools today have an emphasis on history, particularly American history, as they once did, so I feel like what we can bring to our visitors in that respect is very important.”
Conveying American history through art is an integral part of the museum’s mission.
“I’ve always loved history,” said Walton, a history major in college, “but I feel like I never really knew or understood American history until I started reading and studying art. I feel like the history that I’ve learned is so much more alive and real than the history books taught me.”
Art, Walton said, brings alive the “social context of what people were thinking and feeling.”
The Walton family gives to a number of philanthropic causes. When Alice was asked why the Waltons, she in particular, decided to focus their resources on a museum, the answer was two-pronged but simple. One: the area lacks cultural resources, and “I wanted to make a difference in that.” Two: “When you give a gift, you want to give something that you hope greatly enriches and transforms other lives. So I guess it’s that potential at transformation that made me feel like it was the right thing to do.”
(For a slideshow depicting the construction of Crystal Bridges as well as an interview Alice Walton conducted with the New York Times, click here.)