Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Chapter 3 (Part 3): Alice Walton & Crystal Bridges

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I’m Alice Walton, bitch.”[i] – Alice Walton, 2007

“There is a lot that horses and art share in common.” (Not sorry for the lack of context.)

“There is a lot that horses and art share in common.”

Alice Walton is the youngest daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart.  She was raised in Bentonville, Arkansas—also the location of the first Wal-Mart, and where Wal-Mart corporate headquarters is located.  In the past decade Walton has been on a shopping spree of American art, from colonial to contemporary.[ii]  The spree was fueled by her philanthropic project, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (she chose the name), also in Bentonville, a city with a population of 35,000.  The cost for the project is unknown, but art blogger Lee Rosenbaum (CultureGrrl) investigated the museum’s 990s and revealed that between 2005 and 2010, the museum spent $508.57 million in “expenses for charitable activities”[iii]—an intentionally vague category.  These activities most like are the acquisition of art but also the design and construction of the museum by architect Moshe Safdie.

Interior of the “qualified” museum.

Interior of the “qualified” museum.

The museum is funded by Walton’s personal wealth, as well as supported by major contributions from the Walton Family Foundation, including a record cash gift of $800 million in May of 2011,[iv] and a $20 million grant from Wal-mart to eliminate admission to museum into perpetuity.[v]  There could be more transparency with the financing of the non-profit project, especially when paired with the fact some of the works on view in the museum are labeled as being part of the museum’s collection while others are labeled as promised gifts of Walton.[vi]

The extent of Walton and Wal-Mart’s influence in the founding of Crystal Bridges was evident when the State of Arkansas passed Act 1865.  The legislation provides tax exemption for a “qualified museum for construction, repair, expansion, or operation,” where a “qualified museum” is defined as one with a “collection with a value greater than $100 million[vii] in Arkansas prior to January 1, 2013.”[viii]  Walton denies this legislature was meant to benefit Crystal Bridges, but there aren’t any other museums in Arkansas that even qualify as a “qualified museum.”  The legislation was clearly designed and passed solely for Walton and Crystal Bridges.  The anticipated, long-term economic benefits of Crystal Bridges are the State’s justification for the tax breaks.  The museum has already triggered a growth in Bentonville: restaurants and hotels that support the cultural tourism drawn by the museum.[ix]

Since the museum opened at the end of 2011, critics continue to whine over Crystal Bridges’ rural location (Crystal Bridges has already welcomed its 1 millionth visitor[x]) or the perception that Walton pilfered cultural treasures from the East Coast and squirreled them away to Arkansas.[xi]  (A private plane is still listed on the museum’s website without any hint of irony as a legitimate transportation recommendation to the museum.[xii])  The major critique throughout reviews of the museum opening was the unevenness of the collection.[xiii] Critics considered it very strong in early American art, but later on occasionally digresses into pure kitsch: Andy Warhol is represented by a 1985 portrait of Dolly Parton.

Dollywood is only one state --> thattaway.

Dollywood is only one state –> thattaway.

The problem won’t be permanent: Crystal Bridges’s $325 million acquisition endowment will allow it to continually improve the collection.  How deeply involved Walton remains in the museum’s acquisitions remains unclear – she is officially the Chair of the museum’s board (and has a proclivity for purchasing art while on horseback[xiv]).  One hole in the museum’s collection was a lack of a Mark Rothko painting.  This was remedied a year after the museum opened, when No. 210/No. 211 (Orange) was acquired through a private deal brokered by Christie’s.[xv]  Critics point out the museum is still missing a major Jackson Pollock…Maybe the museum is getting distracted acquiring and relocating a Frank Lloyd Wright house from New Jersey.[xvi]

The newly acquired Rothko.

The newly acquired Rothko.

Other acquisitions have been more controversial.  The museum now owns a half interest in the famed Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Fisk University in Tennessee.  The 101 works of modern American art in the Stieglitz Collection were donated to Fisk by Georgia O’Keefe with the explicit conditions that the work never be sold.  Fisk, like other educational institutions with amazing art collections was suffering from budget deficits.  Crystal Bridges paid Fisk $30 million for partial, part-time ownership of the collection meaning the collection is shown for two years at Crystal Bridges and then two years at Fisk.  The museum won because it filled a hole in its collection, and Fisk won because it filled a hole in its budget.

The deal wasn’t so simple and four years of lawsuits ensued.  Finally in November 2011, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that Fisk University was allowed to sell a half-share of the Stieglitz collection to Crystal Bridges.[xvii]  The appellate court also ruled that the entire $30 million could be used as Fisk saw fit, a ruling that went directly against the deaccessioning practices of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which stipulates that money raised on the sale of works of art may only be used for the acquisition of new art. AAMD issued a stern statement following the appellate court ruling.[xviii]   Fisk is not a museum, but should Crystal Bridges feel slightly guilty in perpetrating the issue from the other end?  As CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum so rightly pointed out: “It is more than a little ironic that Alice Walton, herself the donor of a major American art collection for the public benefit, would countenance a deal that violates the explicitly stated wishes of another donor.”[xix]  The Stieglitz Collection went on view at Crystal Bridges for only three months at the end of last year.

There has also been inner turmoil.  Three of four senior curatorial staff have left the museum since its opening.[xx]  There has been a shuffle of leadership: Executive Director, Don Bacigalupi, was promoted to a new position of President, where he is tasked with executing the strategic plan.[xxi]  This includes Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood traveling across the entire country to find under-appreciated and undiscovered artists.  The two are conducting 1000 studio visits, and 100 of these artists will be shown in a kind of biennial (although the organizers seem to deliberately shy away from the B word).  The exhibition will open at Crystal Bridges in September and serve as a kind of commitment to American contemporary art.

A crowded crystal bridge.

A crowded crystal bridge.

The public-private investment seems to be working in small-town America where there is little opposition from the local public (many of whom are employed by Wal-Mart).  Crystal Bridges’ omnipresence over the arts and culture of the Ozarks is successful, and goes largely unchallenged—and is strengthened by state Governments. But what happens when billionaire collectors try these shenanigans in a major American city?

[i] Statement made upon her first DUI arrest.  “The woman who put the art in Wal-Mart,” The Independent, November 8, 2007.
[ii] Ben Davis, “Seeing Through Crystal Bridges,” Artinfo, June 23, 2011, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/37934/seeing-through-crystal-bridges-an-analysis-of-the-new-yorkers-profile-of-walmart-heiress-and-museum-patron-alice-walton.
[iii] Lee Rosenbaum, “Crystal Bridges Accounting: How Much Did Alice’s Palace Cost,” CultureGrrl, November 28, 2011, http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2011/11/crystal_bridges_accounting_how.html.
[iv] Kelly Crow, “Record Gift: $800 Million,” Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2011.
[v] Christopher Reynolds, “Backed by Wal-Mart millions, a museum is born in Arkansas,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2011.
[vi] Judith Dobrzynski, “An Uneven Span Across Time,” Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2011.
[vii] State of Arkansas 85th General Assembly, “Act 1865 of the Regular session,” March 16, 2005.
[viii] Davis.
[ix] Christopher Reynolds, :Crystal Bridges art museum is reshaping Wal-Mart’s hometown,” Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2012.
[x] David Ng, “Crystal Bridges to welcome 1-millionth visitor,” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2013.
[xi] Roberta Smith, “Crystal Bridges, the Art Museum Walmart Money Built, Opens,” New York Times, December 26, 2011.
[xii] Crystal Bridges, “Getting Here,” crystalbridges.org/Plan-Your-Visit/Getting-Here.
[xiii] Dobryznski, “Uneven Span.”
[xiv] Rebecca Mead, “Alice’s Wonderland,” The New Yorker, June 2011.
[xv] Judith Dobryznski, “A Rothko Fills a Museum’s Breach,” Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2012.
[xvi] Carol Vogel, “Crystal Bridges Museum Buys a Frank Lloyd Wright House,” New York Times Artsbeat Blog, January 20, 2014, artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/20/crystal-bridges-museum-buys-a-frank-lloyd-wright-house.
[xvii] Lee Rosenbaum, “Court of Appeals Approves Fisk/Crystal Bridges Collection-Sharing Arrangement,” CultureGrrl, November 30, 2011, http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2011/11/court_of_appeals_approves_fisk.html.
[xviii] Lee Rosenbaum, “AAMD Issues New Statement Deploring Fisk’s $30-Million Crystal Bridges Deal,” CultureGrrl, December 9, 2011, http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2011/12/aamds_issues_strong_statement.html.
[xix] Rosenbaum, “Court of Appeals Approves.”
[xx] Lee Rosenbaum, Crystal Bridges’ Administrative Turnover: Director’s “Promotion” Follows Exodus of Top Curatorial Officials,” CultureGrrl, February 12, 2013, http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2013/02/crystal-bridges-administrative-turnover-directors-promotion-follows-exodus-of-top-curatorial-officials.html.
[xxi] Ibid.

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  1. […] Broad, like Alice Walton, the Fishers and George Lucas, has a long history with the city in which he practices his […]

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