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Alice Walton unlocks treasury of American art

Posted 7:06am on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011

BENTONVILLE, ARK. -- During the past six years, Alice Walton has done the seemingly impossible: She has built a multimillion-dollar museum and filled it with American art spanning 300 years. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened Friday in far northwest Arkansas.

Bentonville is the hometown of Wal-Mart, and Alice's father Sam Walton's original 5 & 10 store still sits on the town square as a historical museum and monument to the origins of big box retailers.

The small town of 35,000 (smaller than Burleson and larger than Cleburne) is almost Disneyesque in its tidiness and constant thrum of activity. More than a dozen multistory buildings are sprinkled around with monumental signs proclaiming a single facet of Wal-Mart world domination, such as Wal-Mart transportation. It is a company town, and now it can boast the newest American art museum of the past 50 years.

In 2005, when Walton, now 62, announced plans to build an art museum in Bentonville, the East Coast art establishment raised a collective eyebrow, and there were dismissive remarks about the location and the sophistication of the community.

This was not the reception in Texas. Residents of North Texas know exactly how an art museum can ignite a cultural explosion and the expectations of an enthusiastic populace. For the past several years, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth has had the good fortune to house a number of Walton's purchases in advance of the Crystal Bridges opening. A $35 million Asher Brown Durand painting, Kindred Spirits, was in the Carter for the opening of the Hudson River School exhibit in early 2011, and a very interesting painting by John Singer Sargent , Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, hung in its galleries for quite a while.

Alice Walton, who lives on a large ranch in Millsap, is quite close to Ruth Carter Stevenson, president of the board of directors of the Carter.

"I don't know whether Ruth is my other mother or my best friend," said Walton. "She is definitely my mentor and has been since the day I began this. She was encouraging from the get-go."

Stevenson would know exactly what Walton faced, as she built the Amon Carter Museum 50 years ago, when it became the last American art museum built in the U.S. until Crystal Bridges came along.

Walton says she never considered any location other than Bentonville. She still thinks of it as home and an area that needs her largess.

"We didn't have museums when I was growing up," she said. "I hope that Crystal Bridges brings wide breadth access to this area, not just Arkansas but as far as Texas. The most important thing to me is to bring opportunities to people that don't have them."

Three weeks ago, when media from the states most likely to send visitors to Arkansas were invited to see Crystal Bridges, the grounds were still an active construction site, as were several of the galleries. Tours were given at breakneck speed, and a carefully controlled conversation with Walton lasted less than an hour. Treated like unruly fourth-graders, we were hustled in and out and sent packing before lunchtime. It did whet the appetite for a longer, more leisurely visit, but Bentonville is not on the way to anywhere.

Whether this museum will attract the 250,000 visitors it expects during the first year will remain to be seen. It is booked so thoroughly that, through Jan. 2, timed tickets must be reserved. Admission is free, thanks to a $20 million gift from Wal-Mart, and there is a great deal of interest in the new institution, locally and nationally.

Blending in with surroundings

The museum sits on 120 heavily wooded acres fed by Crystal Springs in the northeast area of Bentonville on land that the Walton family had been saving for the next generation, Alice's nieces and nephews. She was married once but has no children. In the late '90s, she began talking up the idea of a museum; the family considered it and eventually agreed to her plan. Their enthusiastic endorsement was exhibited this year when the Walton Family Foundation gave the museum an $800 million endowment.

Walton and members of the family toured the U.S. looking at museums and at the work of architects. They hired Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie.

"He was the only person we interviewed," she said. "It didn't matter if his buildings are in middle of city or in the country; they always reflected the character and nature of the space they are in in an organic way. This land is very special to my family, and very spiritual. I grew up in these woods, and we wanted someone who would be able to integrate the building into nature in a seamless fashion."

Safdie accomplished that, and the best way to see the museum is from within; there is no vantage point, other than aerial, to see the scope of the entire structure. Upon approaching the museum, the first and only thing the visitor sees is the top level of the parking structure. There is little sense of the magnitude as its eight pavilions are stretched out along the water course on a lower level.

Two of them span the creek, which has been dammed to form two large pools, and these buildings, with their roofs constructed like suspension bridges, gave the museum its name, Crystal Bridges.

From the parking lot, the top branches of a stainless-steel tree by Roxy Paine peek over the railings. It is from the family of Paine's metal flora, popular now with museums; two of them are on the grounds of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. There are a dozen large outdoor sculptural works placed throughout the grounds along miles of hiking trails, including one of James Turrell's sky pieces.

The galleries are in six of the buildings, with various configurations that respond to the nature of the art. The 18th- and 19th-century artworks are in intimate galleries with walls painted intense colors; the modern and contemporary galleries are larger, with higher ceilings, and are painted the ubiquitous white.

There are the museum necessities -- a gift shop, a cafe named Eleven and a large research library that already has more than 50,000 volumes. There is a great hall for events, meeting rooms and an educational wing. The passageways between the buildings offer spectacular views of the setting, as do the two large buildings that span the spring-fed pools.

There is artwork on exhibit that is worth the travel miles and others that seem more like placeholders for greater works to come. In the Colonial galleries is a portrait by Charles Willson Peale of the father of our country, with florid cheeks (high blood pressure, perhaps?), a beer gut and one hand resting ever so suggestively on a large cannon. It's not the typical dour-faced George Washington.

There are other anomalies within the ranks of the early Americans. Portrait of a Girl and Her Dog in a Grape Arbor (1855-60), attributed to Susan Catherine Moore, shows a happy pooch and an irritated young miss who looks about two seconds away from a major meltdown. This, too, is not the kind of whitewashed history usually found in American art collections; nor are the portraits of American Indians by Charles Bird King that hang shoulder-to-shoulder with the first president.

Works by women and works by what are commonly thought of as second-tier artists and little-known artists are hanging in the galleries at Crystal Bridges. Gallery signage sports some unfamiliar names, which adds an interesting dynamic. Works have been chosen as much on their visceral appeal as their name-worthiness, suggesting that the canon of American art can use a closer examination.

Don Bacigalupi, the museum's director, says that is one of his intentions in building the permanent collection. "We hope to flesh out the story, find some of the marginalized stories to add to the canon of mainstream art," he said. "When we do our detective work, we will find these other alternative stories and bring them to light."

Crystal Bridges has elevated some artists to the pantheon. Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, from a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover, is in the galleries. The museum paid $4.9 million for that one.

A stunning landscape by Thomas Moran, Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn, was added to the collection shortly after the museum was announced in 2005. "It was owned by Harvey and Bernice Jones in Springdale, Ark., and it had been sitting behind their sofa for 60 years, but to the art world it was lost," said Walton, chuckling. "It was lost in Arkansas."

There are pieces by the greats that aren't so great, such as a clumsy Calder mobile that is half coffee table, and a very early Jackson Pollock that doesn't even suggest the drips to come.

But there is a stunning 2008 Kara Walker silhouette on wool tapestry, A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, that depicts the burning of an orphanage, and a collage by Kerry James Marshall, Our Town, (1995), a posterization of an idealized suburb covered in graffiti with two African-American children racing down the street, one on a bicycle. These two pieces bear racially charged imagery that does not play it safe.

Devorah Sperber and Karen LaMonte are young women who will no doubt become much better known. Their works chosen for the permanent collection are quite unusual and tend toward craft, which can be damning in some museum cultures but portend a lively gallery experience. Sperber strung more than 20,000 spools of sewing thread on ball chain to create a replica of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, only upside down -- unless you look at After the Last Supper through a viewing sphere that corrects the piece's "upside downness."

LaMonte is a glass artist who casts clothing, and her utilization of sheer fabrics over a female form has a sexiness that is perfectly family-friendly, but at the same time, Dress Impression With Wrinkled Cowl speaks volumes for the secondary skin of clothing and what it does and does not conceal.

Although more than 600 pieces have been purchased, many of them photographs and works on paper that can't be exhibited very often, one wishes Crystal Bridges had been acquisitive like the Kimbell Art Museum, only buying the most spectacular pieces on the market but with the inclusion of the lesser-known names. However, if it had done that, it would have a lot of empty wall space.

Bacigalupi isn't concerned. Three weeks ago, he was defending the collection, saying, "We're not even open yet."

With the November art sales on his calendar and that hefty endowment in the bank, he quickly followed the defensive posturing with, "We begin our life with a long horizon and a long future of collecting vigorously."

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

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