Crystal Bridges Collection Takes Turn Toward the Modern

The announcement that Bentonville would be the site of a Walton family-founded art museum coincided with the May 2005 announcement that Alice Walton had bought Asher B. Durand's painting "Kindred Spirits" for a reported $35 million-plus.

In the ensuing months and years, the outline of the collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art began to take shape: Winslow Homer's "Spring," Charles Willson Peale's "George Washington," Thomas Moran's "Autumn Landscape."

As the museum itself began to take shape, the acquisition announcements started coming regularly. And while the pieces were all masterworks - some even iconic - they tended toward the traditional. That wasn't a surprise. John Wilmerding, the art expert who has been advising Alice Walton for the last six years, had said in 2005 that the collection would encompass the Colonial period to the early American modern period, roughly mid-20th century.

That began to change in the last year, however, as Crystal Bridges began to release the titles of later, edgier, even disturbing acquisitions, pieces like Walton Ford's "The Island," described as "a writhing pyramidal mass of Tasmanian wolves (thylacines) grappling with each other and a few doomed lambs," a 2009 creation. Or Wayne Thiebaud's "Supine Woman," "a psychologically ambiguous portrait of a tense, prone woman," painted in 1963.

Wilmerding, who now sits on the museum's board, and Don Bacigalupi, who took over as museum director in October, said the evolution of the collection had evolved along with Alice Walton's interests. As her interests have expanded, so has the vision for the museum.

In the last year, Wilmerding said, Walton has "moved much more actively in collecting contemporary and modern art. And I think that's a very important development."

Bacigalupi, who came to Crystal Bridges from the Toledo Museum of Art, agreed that the museum lately had been more focused on collecting 20th and 21st century pieces.

The mission remains the same: to relate the history of American art.

America is, as countries go, relatively young, but the history of its art is rich and the museum's collection is vast and of outstanding quality, Wilmerding and Bacigalupi said. Only perhaps 10 percent of its acquisitions have been announced, Bacigalupi said.

Bacigalupi, interviewed in late June after returning from the yearly contemporary art show in Basel, Switzerland, perhaps the world's most prestigious, sat in an office in a nondescript one-story, strip-mall-style building in the museum's temporary quarters in Beau Terre Office Park in Bentonville.

"When the museum project was conceived and begun, the areas that were probably most foundational and most important to acquire were those 18th and 19th century early American iconic works," he said. "We're very serious about American history."

But the museum's definition of history has grown to include the present. "Obviously, history's moving forward, and we continue to pay attention to what's happening in American art today," Bacigalupi said.

"We are by mission attempting something quite remarkable, which is to celebrate the American spirit through the presentation of the history of American art and in addition to that trying to comprehensively cover American art history from its beginnings in the Colonial period up to the contemporary moment."


Thinking of the Public

Alice Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and chair of the board of Crystal Bridges, has been collecting art for at least 20 years. She retains a private collection, a portion of which will go to the museum.

She first called on Wilmerding for advice in 2004. That was the same year that Wilmerding, himself a prominent collector and one of the foremost authorities on American art, donated his collection of 19th century American art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In a telephone interview last week from his summer home in Maine, Wilmerding said the call came "really out of the blue. I think it was from her art lawyer, who I think was helping sort of set up the legal and financial structure of the museum. I never have asked her who initially suggested my name to her. It might have come from several sources. We all know each other in the field."

Walton had not yet bought the Durand painting, "but I think the idea [for the museum] was firmly under way at that point, although I think she had no idea of the range and scale."

With the hiring of Bacigalupi as Crystal Bridges director, Wilmerding has stepped back from his active role as adviser.

But in the early days of Wilmerding's collaboration with Walton, "she never was quite sure whether an acquisition would be something that she would want to keep for herself for her lifetime or whether she would be buying for the museum."

However, Wilmerding said, "I think there was always an understanding" that if a piece were museum worthy ultimately it would go to Crystal Bridges.


'She's Tough'

In Forbe's 2010 ranking of the world's richest people, Alice Walton came in at No. 16, with her worth estimated at $20.6 billion. Despite her immense resources, she appears to have remained her father's daughter. Sam Walton was never a pushover.

"I do believe it's going to be a dramatic revelation [about] what's been accomplished," Wilmerding said of the museum collection. "And some critics would say, 'Well, it's endless amounts of money.' But to me in a way that's been the most remarkable and admirable thing about her buying is that even with unlimited resources, so to speak, she's tough on what she buys.

"She will not spend 'at any cost.' There have been things that we have passed up that drive me crazy. You think, 'Well, you can afford to buy it; get it. It's going to be worth the inflated price someday.' But she's been really tough.

"It's had an important effect on dealers in the market," Wilmerding said. "Dealers can't just assume Alice Walton is going to buy anything. ... She's exercised restraint all along the way. And I don't mean simply only buying bargains but just being absolutely ruthless on realistic market values.

"She'll do the homework on almost every individual acquisition and will ask for paperwork on market comparables," he said. "She'd be the last person who'd want to be taken to the cleaners on a purchase or sticking her head out at auction. And I think that's something that's very important for people to know."

Nevertheless, Wilmerding said, Walton is seeking quality above all else.

Bacigalupi, who as museum director is now "completely" involved in the acquisition of the collection, said, "The strategy that we employ vis-à-vis the relatively high profile of Alice and the family is that we try to be very circumspect in our acquisitions."

Walton is very conscious of the impact that she or Crystal Bridges might have on the art market if it became obvious what the museum was considering buying.

"That would be both disadvantageous to us, and it would be unfair to other collectors to affect the market in that way," Bacigalupi said.

That kind of discretion is the norm in the world of art collecting.

There are also advantages, however, that come with the high profile of the Waltons and the museum. "This is certainly the case with certain living artists and certain dealers that understand the value of placing a work of art in a museum collection, in a public collection where it will be enjoyed by many, many people," Bacigalupi said.

Take Walton Ford, for example, an artist extensively profiled in The New Yorker last year.

"The dealer that represents Walton I think is very conscientious about where those works end up," Bacigalupi said. "It wasn't that the work was a gift or a loan to us. We purchased it. But I think it was very important to the artist and to the dealer to ensure that that work was going to an important collection where it would be seen and enjoyed by a number of people and also that it would live in that collection forever."

Asked about earlier published criticism of Walton as a sort of cultural pirate spiriting away masterworks to be displayed in the hinterlands, Wilmerding chuckled.

"The overriding answer to all of that is that she's saving most of these works for the public domain," he said. "She has competition from [Bill] Gates and there are major private collectors in Texas and there are others. There's a whole new ballgame of competition - auction and otherwise - from the Europeans, Eastern Europeans, even the Russians, so she doesn't get everything.

"There are many cases where she has lost pictures to other private collectors, and there's no assurance that those works are going to be out in the open someday," he said. "She's buying for the public good. That's the bottom line. Period."


The Reveal

Wilmerding said that when the museum opens it will rank at least in the top half dozen of American art museums, maybe higher.

"Its quality and its range and depth already place it among one of the very best," he said. "It's going to have to be by definition a major destination museum."

In addition, he said, Crystal Bridges will be one of only a handful of museums "devoted to the entire history of American art."

The museum doesn't discuss prices paid for artwork. But its 2008 IRS Form 990-PF, the latest available, notes $43.6 million in "art acquisitions" during 2008. The 2007 form lists $81.9 million in art acquisitions and the 2006 form puts the figure at $97.3 million. Totaled, that's at least $222.8 million worth of art.

The opening of Crystal Bridges, Bacigalupi said, will be "a real watershed moment in American museums and in the history of American art."


Opening Day

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville was originally scheduled to open in 2009. That was pushed back to 2010 and then pushed back again.

Director Don Bacigalupi, citing the complexity of the museum construction, said the museum was now aiming to open by the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012.

Architect Moshe Safdie is designing the glass-and-wood building, which will feature what's described as a "series of pavilions nestled around two creek-fed ponds."

John Wilmerding, a member of the board, said, "It's like building a darn airplane terminal out in the wilderness. It's a huge architectural project."

Alice Walton, he said, "very much has wanted, as you know, a building that will exist in nature not just plunked onto it. And to achieve that, I believe there have been serious cost overruns. I think everything is now on track and in control."

As with the art collection, museum officials say next-to-nothing about the cost of the structure. But Crystal Bridges' latest report to the IRS, for 2008, notes payment of $23.3 million to Linbeck-Nabholz Joint Venture Co. Inc., the contractor, and $4.2 million to Moshe Safdie & Associates. And it puts the total fair market value of land, buildings and equipment at $70 million.

- Jan Cottingham