Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum Will Test Power of Art

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Mar. 10, 2008 12:00 am  

(There will be many unique features built around Crystal Bridges. Click here for a site plan and map. Also, click here to see national trends in tourism compared to those of northwest Arkansas.)

In 2010, when Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville is scheduled to open, the power of art will be tested.

Those who believe in the power of art believe that Crystal Bridges Museum will not merely pass the test; it will transform northwest Arkansas. That transformation will be both cultural and economic.

Alice Walton's vision, which a few years ago elicited derision outside the state (and still is occasionally subject to shrill sniping, mostly from the Eastern establishment), now generates a cascade of superlatives:

The museum will be "the greatest catalyst for growth that this area has ever, ever experienced." - Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin

"It signals a whole different era in northwest Arkansas." - Ed Clifford, president of the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce

"People are genuinely excited that there is this commitment to build something truly powerful, transformative." - Bob Workman, executive director of Crystal Bridges

"If it in fact lives up to its mission in terms of teaching and learning and exhibiting works of art for the common good, then it will be an absolute ensured success." - Philip Eliasoph, professor of art history at Fairfield University in Connecticut, critic and curator.

The $50 million Crystal Bridges, founded by the only daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and set on 100 acres of Walton family land, will house American masterworks. The works, bought by Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, include "Kindred Spirits" by Asher B. Durand, considered one of the finest examples of the Hudson River School and for which Walton reportedly paid more than $35 million. Also: Thomas Eakins' "Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand"; paintings of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale; and Winslow Homer's "Spring."

Those are only the works the museum has disclosed. Art professionals describe Walton as a knowledgeable and diligent collector; she has not just deep pockets but mineshaft-deep pockets, with an estimated net worth of $19 billion; and she's discreet. All this means that the museum's announced acquisitions are likely just a taste of the top-level artworks it will eventually display.

The museum complex itself is likely to attract tourists. Moshe Safdie, a world-renowned architect, is designing the 100,000-SF contemporary glass-and-wood structure. The complex, which will incorporate the creek that runs through the property, will also include a 250-seat auditorium, trails and spaces for outdoor events.

Museum and civic officials have said they expect Crystal Bridges to draw 250,000 visitors annually. Workman predicted an economic impact to the area of $15 million in direct spending annually, noting that was a conservative estimate. That's a combination of what the museum puts into the local economy itself in terms of workers' salaries and local purchases (utilities, supplies) and visitors' spending (restaurants, lodging, retail). "If you use the multipliers like everybody does - I've heard the Chamber suggest as much as $40 million a year."



Please read our comments policy before commenting.