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

(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."

More Than Tourists

Indeed, civic leaders in Bentonville, population 31,000, are preparing for economic development on a grand scale. They see not just tourists drawn to the area but permanent residents, people deciding to relocate because of the region's cultural amenities.

Mayor McCaslin said that apart from Sam Walton's decision to locate Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, "this will be the single largest event in a compact period of time that northwest Arkansas will ever experience."

"That type of growth is contagious," McCaslin said. "When you start influxing your municipality with that many additional visitors each year, many of them visiting for the first time, there are a lot of ways to take advantage of that for your community. And I believe here in Bentonville that we have a lot of visionary, forward-thinking people that are making the preparations to enjoy the upside that this will bring to all of us."

Last year, city voters overwhelmingly approved a $110 million bond issue, with $85 million of that to go to street projects to enable those visitors to get around more easily.

The town's square, home to the Walton Five & Dime, the first store to bear Sam Walton's name and now Wal-Mart's museum and visitors' center, is undergoing renovation.

Clifford said that "250,000 people a year coming to the museum is one thing, but being able to put together the kind of a downtown that we need to keep them there becomes a whole different ballgame. So we've begun the Bentonville Square renovation project Phase 2, and that will finish in September. The whole downtown area will kind of be transformed."

Clifford sees a new hotel, along with a new planned parking garage, and noted a proposal for a children's museum in the area.

A shift has occurred, Clifford said. In the past, the area focused on creating "hard infrastructure" - roads, wastewater treatment plants, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Now, the focus is on "soft infrastructure," "which will keep the people who are here here and then attract people who normally wouldn't look at our area because there's nothing to do." Except now, he said, there is.

"There's the botanical gardens in Fayetteville; there's minor league baseball in Springdale; there's a children museum; there's Crystal Bridges; there's galleries in downtown; there's a science and technology museum being talked about somewhere in northwest Arkansas - a whole bunch of stuff to do, which makes a whole different ballgame out of it," Clifford said.

"Then you've got a real economic development tool because we're talking house sales and apartment leases and condo sales," Clifford said. "So its effect is really much more significant than just the 250,000 people who come here."

"We're on the doorstep, if you will, of a whole different northwest Arkansas," he said. "And I think that's really what Alice and the Walton Family Foundation and Crystal Bridges signal - that we move into a different era now, and that's a really neat deal."

Kalene Griffith, president of Bentonville's Advertising & Promotion Commission, is a little more measured in her assessment, though no less enthusiastic.

"Crystal Bridges does not only exist for economic reasons, but that's a nice side effect. It will provide our area with opportunities to re-create our downtown into a cultural and retail district. It will also give our community an appreciation of arts and humanities," she said.

"I feel very uncomfortable personally when I give an amount [of economic impact dollars] because I think the thing about Crystal Bridges is it's going to be such an asset for Bentonville and northwest Arkansas culturally. It's making Bentonville a viable destination."

She noted the explosive growth of the region. Concerning the museum, Griffith echoed others in saying "it is a great attraction to people who want to relocate."

"I think we're becoming a metro-type area down the [Interstate] 540 corridor."

For Art's Sake, and More

The excitement of area civic leaders about the museum and its economic impact is, of course, understandable. But they're not alone in the appreciation of cultural offerings as an economic development engine.

Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that works to advance the arts in the United States, last year released what it called "the most comprehensive economic impact study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry ever conducted in the United States."

The study, "Arts & Economic Prosperity III," reported that "the nonprofit arts industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, resulting in $29.6 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues."

"This study is a myth buster," Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, said in a news release. "Most Americans understand that the arts improve our quality of life. This study demonstrates that the arts are an industry that stimulates the economy in cities and towns across the country. A vibrant arts and culture industry helps local businesses thrive."

The study examined 156 regions, from Homer, Alaska (population 5,364), to Chicago, from the entire state of North Dakota to the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Asked whether people would travel to northwest Arkansas solely for the purpose of visiting an art museum - granted, a splendid and important art museum - Randy Cohen answered with an emphatic "yes."

"What the data plainly show is that even in a very small community, arts and culture is an industry, the cornerstone of tourism," said Cohen, vice president of policy and research for Americans for the Arts. "There are many small communities that have a great abundance of cultural activity. Arts are not simply a big-city phenomenon. Travelers these days are looking for authentic cultural experiences. People want to see the arts and culture and heritage of the community and what's unique about that place that they're visiting."

Among the regions covered by the study was northwest Arkansas, defined as Benton and Washington counties, with a 2005 population of 367,295. The study found that people attending nonprofit arts and cultural events spent an average of $24.34 per person, excluding the price of admission. For people who lived in the area, the average spent was $19.04; for those from outside the two-county region, $50.92.

And that was before the Crystal Bridges Museum.

"Arts and culture is a product. And it's a product that attracts people to a community," Cohen said.

The timing of Crystal Bridges is good, he added. Assuming that gasoline prices don't fall dramatically, a fairly safe assumption, the museum should benefit from tourists seeking to stay relatively close to home.

Cohen also agreed with area boosters that the museum could help persuade people not just to visit but to stay.

He cited the "new economy we're in, call it the knowledge economy, what you will. If you look at the research, the workers in this new economy are very different," he said. "What the studies show is they're looking at creative and cultural opportunities" as factors in deciding where to live.

Businesses, in turn, are seeking "that skilled, educated work force," Cohen said. "That's another business-relevant reason for having a vibrant cultural community."

Crystal Bridges "reminds me a little of the Biltmore estate in Asheville [N.C.], which has had a huge economic impact," Cohen said.

'The Power of Art'

Workman, Crystal Bridges' executive director, also thinks that people will travel to northwest Arkansas solely to visit the museum. "An example would be Winterthur," he said, referring to the country estate in Delaware, former home of Henry Francis du Pont. The estate features an outstanding collection of American antiques, a 60-acre garden and a research library.

"We have three things going for us," said Workman, former deputy director of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. "We have the collection itself, and the quality of the collection and the notoriety of some aspects of the collection. We have the architecture of Moshe Safdie and his position in the international architecture community. And then, quite frankly, I think we have the interest in the Walton family and their philanthropy."

Workman has been involved with the museum project since 2003, starting as a consultant in the planning of and acquisitions for the museum. Down-to-earth, sincere and passionate about art, he's sitting in the proverbial catbird seat, at least for people in his field.

"We've already seen great interest nationally," Workman said. "I spoke last night in Atlanta, at the High Museum. I was the inaugural speaker in a new distinguished lecture series in American art, and they felt that to launch this new series they wanted to talk about the newest American art museum. ... There's beginning to be a real buzz.

"Given that we're still two years out, I'm very optimistic that we will be drawing on those people who are interested in the uniqueness of the project and the quality of what we're working to achieve."

Asked about locating the museum in still-small-town Arkansas, Workman said that was part of the plan.

"A goal of our project is to make a high-quality art experience accessible to the broadest audiences, and we believe that this region of the country offers great family-based recreational offerings. And that to incorporate a high-quality visual arts experience, it really opens the museum to people who otherwise wouldn't necessarily find themselves in urban Chicago or San Francisco.

"From another perspective, it places the art in a really contemplative environment," he said. "The experience of being in this building will be a continual reinforcement of inside-outside as one progresses through the pavilions in an exquisite natural setting."

Workman wants Crystal Bridges Museum to be "integrated into the fabric of people's lives."

"I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, from a real working-class family, and I have vivid memories of my first encounters with the art collection at the city's art museum, which is a small but very fine-quality American art collection. My interest in art totally changed my life and gave me insights and opportunities that I don't know if any other endeavor would have provided.

"I truly believe in the ... power of art. It's just so exciting to think about children in particular who are going to have their perspectives changed because of what we're doing."

Philip Eliasoph, a professor of art history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., with expertise in cultural tourism, also believes in the power of art. He has been teaching museum and gallery studies for 30 years. He described himself as working "at the intersection" of the scholarly, curatorial and entrepreneurial aspects of art and has followed the art-purchasing history of Alice Walton.

He doesn't doubt that Crystal Bridges will attract people.

Eliasoph pointed to the town leaders of 12th-century Chartres, France, who decided to devote the small town's energies and finances to building one of the world's most beautiful buildings, Chartres Cathedral. "Once Chartres Cathedral was built a thousand years ago, it became a magnet and a destination."

He cited the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry and also considered one of the world's great buildings. "If you were to visit Bilbao 25 years ago, you would have said this looks like the Basque region's version of some Rust Belt city somewhere between Detroit and Buffalo."

"Trust in art. Believe in the power of art," Eliasoph exhorted, adding, "I look forward to visiting Bentonville."

"If our critics spend any time at all learning about who we are, learning about our region, they soon realize that this is not a backwater," Workman said. "This is a thriving, small but important urban area that has a very international profile, that offers quality of life that is among the best in the country."

"I like to think that maybe I'm in a place like Indianapolis or something in 1905, one of the next great cities, and we're laying a foundation that is really going to make a difference in how the area grows," Workman said. "I think if we can become a place for people of all backgrounds to interact, if we can be a place where people can learn more about our own culture and then others, I think that's an important ingredient to being a truly international city, or international region."

Mayor McCaslin would agree. People tend to know Bentonville and they tend to know Wal-Mart, he said, "but what Miss Walton is doing with Crystal Bridges, I think, is completing the transformation of Bentonville into an international destination."

Sam Walton not only integrated Wal-Mart into the fabric of American life; he made it a global commercial powerhouse. Now his daughter, Alice, is working to integrate Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its masterpieces into the fabric of American life. In the process, a corner of Arkansas appears likely to become something very different yet something very grand.