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Business Icons: Alice Walton Transforms Landscape, Reputation of Northwest Arkansas

5 min read

Forbes.com has a nifty feature: You can track the wealth of the world’s billionaires in more or less real time, meaning what their stock holdings are worth that day.

On Aug. 2, Alice Walton was worth $35.3 billion, down $444 million from the previous day. That put her at No. 16 on the list of the world’s billionaires. Brother Jim stood at No. 14, $36.5 billion, and brother Rob stood at No. 17, $34.9 billion.

They weren’t even the only Waltons on the list. Joining them were nephew Lukas Walton ($11 billion), sister-in-law Christy Walton ($5.5 billion) and cousins Ann Walton Kroenke ($5 billion) and Nancy Walton Laurie ($4.5 billion).

On Aug. 2, these Waltons alone were worth $132.7 billion, far greater than No. 1 on the list, Bill Gates with $78.1 billion.

Most of the wealth is inherited, so Alice Walton isn’t a business icon because of her business savvy: She’s smart, like her father, Sam Walton, and no profligate, but he was the genius merchandiser.

Like her father, however, she has a vision for Arkansas and faith in Arkansans. Walton is an icon because she has made her vision a reality that is shaping Arkansas just as Wal-Mart shaped the state and, later, the world.

Walton, 66, took her love of Arkansas, art and American history and built a major museum — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — in the unlikeliest of places: Bentonville. Opening almost five years ago, on Nov. 11, 2011, it consistently receives glowing reviews for its artwork, the 200,000-SF building itself and its beautifully landscaped location, 120 acres on which the children of Sam and Helen Walton grew up. About 2.5 million people have visited the museum.

Few people would cry for Walton because she’s rich, but being world famously rich isn’t without burdens — a lack of privacy being one of them. Walton is a private person and gives infrequent interviews. And friends and acquaintances don’t talk unless she gives the OK.

In an interview with Arkansas Business five years ago, she described her love of art, a love that she shared with her mother, Helen, who encouraged Alice to express herself in drawing and watercolors. It was a bond between the pair.

Walton finds art spiritually meaningful. Art has nuances that speak to her. “I love art, and I don’t have to know anything about a piece of art to look at it and to ask questions and give myself answers and have a whole internal dialogue with a painting,” she said.

Placing art in its historical context makes it even more meaningful. And that’s the museum’s mission: to tell the American story through art.

But it was the decision to place it in Bentonville — smack dab in the middle of flyover country — that underscores her faith in Arkansas and Arkansans.

“We wanted the impact to be a positive one for northwest Arkansas,” Walton said of the family’s commitment to the state, which included an $800 million endowment for the museum. A $20 million gift from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. allows the museum to offer free admission.

Mike Malone is president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, founded by Walton; her father, Sam; John and Don Tyson; and other powerful business leaders. The council promotes economic development in the region, and Malone said Walton knew exactly what she was doing in locating the museum in northwest Arkansas. “I think she always dreams big and achieves very big things,” he said.

The museum has resulted in the opening of restaurants, hotels and retail shops in Bentonville and the surrounding areas. The downtown square has been completely revitalized, and nearby cities like Springdale are paying new attention to their downtowns.

In 2015, Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis and Trevor Drinkwater founded the Bentonville Film Festival, which promotes women and culturally diverse voices in film.

The museum has “helped change our reputation as a state,” Malone said. “People view Arkansas differently. It’s caused them to give us a new look, a fresh look. After decades — or maybe more than a century — of being made fun of, now it’s viewed as a highly desirable cultural destination. That’s because she had the vision to do it here.”

Walton also was at the forefront in the creation of the $107 million Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport at Highfill, which opened in 1998. In 2010, Scott Van Laningham, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, described Walton’s role as critical.

“She was the first chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council, and it was the council that went around to the cities and counties and urged them to create the Airport Authority as the separate public entity to proceed with the studying, looking for the site, all of that early work,” he said.

Walton and other Walton family members helped raise funds to start building the airport, and the Llama Co. of Fayetteville, an investment firm then headed by Walton, underwrote an almost $80 million bond issue to finance its construction.

“We were able to sell those bonds basically by selling the vision of what was possible in northwest Arkansas,” Van Laningham said.

In 1999, the Airport Authority board named the terminal building after Walton, and she was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.

“Vision” is a word that arises frequently in discussions of Walton. “Alice had such a vision for Crystal Bridges and the city of Bentonville and northwest Arkansas,” said Kalene Griffith, the president and CEO of Visit Bentonville. “I think she’s transformed northwest Arkansas culturally but also economically. I think the biggest thing for me is it continues to evolve and grow.”

Griffith said the museum’s impact is more than economic. “I think it affected the quality of life for our locals. They’re being introduced to something that they did not have that opportunity to be introduced to in the past.”

The local community has developed a greater appreciation for the arts and humanities. “They’re valuing that in the education system,” Griffith said. “And I think that’s throughout the whole state.”

Five years ago in October, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art invited the press to a media tour of the newly built museum, and Walton was present. “I never expected people to be so excited,” she said then, and those who know her say her surprise — and delight — remains intact.

Walton measures success by how many people the museum reaches and by their diversity, Malone said.

One of the museum’s most famous artworks is “Rosie the Riveter” by Norman Rockwell. Painted for the May 29, 1943, cover of the Saturday Evening Post, “Rosie the Riveter” depicts a strong but thoroughly feminine woman, part of the home front work effort during World War II. In the deeply loved painting, which is corny and patriotic and probably not great art, Rosie is wearing overalls and eating a sandwich.

And in a testament to the wide and continuing popularity of the museum, more than one visitor to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has seen more than one Arkansas farmer, also dressed in overalls, contemplating the charming Rosie.

See more at Ten Arkansas Business Icons Have Stories to Tell

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