An Interview with Alice Walton: Crystal Bridges An Expression of Love

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 12:00 am  

Alice Walton, 62, grew up in Bentonville but now lives on a horse ranch near Fort Worth, Texas. She is a private woman, though she comes across as warm and friendly in a September telephone interview.

But ask her what she hopes the museum will achieve, and 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 here at Crystal Bridges.

“And I particularly want children, schoolchildren, to have the opportunity to experience the art and to relate it to their lessons.

“On an international basis, I think our major mission is to promote American art to the rest of the world, not just to Americans but to the rest of the world. It’s a very young field that has much research and scholarship to be done, so it’s an extremely exciting field. And 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 thought. The museum, scheduled to open Nov. 11, occupies a 120-acre park that once belonged to the Walton family and that 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 kind of a straight-line thought process, and I think that art is not. I think that spiritual connections are not, for example,” she said.



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