Only in Arkansas: The Top 10 Business Stories of 2011

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Dec. 26, 2011 12:00 am  

No. 1
Crystal Bridges Museum Opens

After six-and-a-half years of buildup, the question was, could Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art live up to the hype?
We learned the answer on Nov. 11, the day the Bentonville institution opened: A resounding "yes."

Alice Walton, only daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, announced plans for the museum in May 2005, soon after news reports revealed she had paid what was thought to be more than $35 million for "Kindred Spirits," an Asher B. Durand painting, from the New York Public Library.

At the time, Crystal Bridges was projected to cost $50 million, come in at 100,000 SF and open in 2009. The museum, designed by famed architect Moshe Safdie, eventually encompassed 201,000 SF, cost something north of $150 million and opened in 2011.

Decried, mostly in the big-city Eastern press, as a "culture vulture" seeking to snap up American masterworks only to display them in the hinterlands of Arkansas, Walton ignored her critics and, with the multimillion-dollar support of the Walton Family Foundation, continued her art-shopping spree.
Just a couple of the best-known prizes: Charles Willson Peale's "George  Washington and Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter." The collection, however, came to cover the history of American art and feature works from lesser-known artists and edgier, contemporary pieces.

From the start, civic leaders in northwest Arkansas predicted the museum would be an engine for economic development in the region, forecasting up to 250,000 visitors a year. Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said in early 2008 that the museum would be "the greatest catalyst for growth that this area has ever, ever experienced."

Indeed, construction of an upscale 104-room hotel in the city began earlier this month, and state tourism officials planned to buy advertising in national magazines to tout Arkansas as a cultural destination. In addition, Crystal Bridges and two other U.S. museums announced plans to partner with the Louvre in Paris to exhibit both American and European art.

For Walton, the museum is about more than telling the American story through its art; it's a tribute to her late mother, Helen, who shared with her daughter her own love of art. In an interview with Arkansas Business, Walton called that love "one of the real motivations for Crystal Bridges."

Although Alice Walton, whose net worth is estimated at about $21 billion, has been the driving force behind the museum, the Walton family and its foundation have shown increasing involvement in the project. The foundation disclosed that it had spent more than $1.2 billion on the museum in 2010 alone, including an $800 million endowment.

In July, the museum announced that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was giving Crystal Bridges $20 million to cover admission fees for all visitors, with the intent of making museum admission free in perpetuity.

No. 2
Kevin Lewis Admits Fraud

On Dec. 9, former Little Rock attorney Kevin Lewis was sentenced to 121 months in federal prison for committing the largest fraud prosecuted in Arkansas' history.

Lewis orchestrated a fake special improvement district bond scheme that cost Arkansas banks more than $50 million.

Lewis, 43, specialized in a niche of the law involving special improvement districts. Lewis knew and exploited the lax regulation of the districts.
Starting in 1997, Lewis created phony bonds that were either sold to banks or used as collateral for bank loans. The money fueled a luxurious lifestyle for Lewis that included buying in 2007 a $1.2 million home in west Little Rock that was then expanded. Lewis also bought stock in First Southern Bank of Batesville, eventually becoming its majority shareholder using borrowed money secured by the bank stock.



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