The story of the world’s third richest woman Alice Walton – her thorough conception and patronage of Crystal Bridges Museum’s construction and her acquisition of American masterworks by sheer force of capital – has not been without controversy amidst the American art establishment.

Crystal Bridges Museum houses what may be the best collection of American art in a museum, and has already established itself far beyond a collector’s vanity project. The passion is patent. As Walton said in a June 27, 2011 interview in The New Yorker: “Collecting has been such a joy, and such an important part of my life in terms of seeing art, and loving it…And I was absolutely fascinated by the view of American history that art gave me. It was much more real to me, and much more closely tied to the political and social context of the country, and the changes, when I saw it through the eyes of the artists.”

Located on 120 acres of forests and gardens, dotted with sculpture and surrounded by six walking trails, Crystal Bridges Museum is named after the natural spring running through the property. Eight pavilions are made of local materials: the roof is a system of laminated wooden beams made of Arkansas white pine, and the vaulted and convex toroidal roofs are clad with copper, which in time will develop a rich, green patina to blend with the surrounding flora. On the Art Trail, a site-specific work “The Way of Color” by James Turrell is a building crafted from native stone; it provides a view of the sky altered by LED lighting effects, which change with the light and weather conditions outside.

Crystal Bridges Museum is designed to be nature’s fine bedfellow. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen is a direct inspiration, as Alice Walton and the Israeli-born, Canadian-educated and now Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie traveled to Europe in search of architectural ideas. Safdie’s former projects include the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Habitat ‘67 complex in Montreal.

Walton follows in the tradition of Henry Clay Frick (industry magnate and founder of The Frick Museum in New York City’s Upper East Side), John D. Rockefeller III (Standard Old heir behind the fine American art collection at the de Young Museum in San Francisco), and Isabella Stewart Gardner (whose eponymous museum in Boston reflects her love of Old Masters).

Walton’s legacy is her patriotic focus – a survey of American art from Colonial portraiture to contemporary installation – and Crystal Bridges Museum’s unique situation: Bentonville, Arkansas, nestled in the heart of the Ozark mountains, equidistant between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Little Rock, Arkansas, just south of the Missouri border. It is a pilgrimage for art enthusiasts (a boutique hotel is scheduled to open in late 2012) but, perhaps more importantly, it is a resource for the local community, which is rather starved for cultural opportunities, most certainly of this scale.

Alice Walton is the youngest daughter of the late Sam Walton who founded the low-cost retail giant Walmart, presently America’s largest private employer. The Walton Family Foundation is reported to have given 800 million USD to Crystal Bridges Museum, which has a 1.2 billion endowment as of 2011. Furthermore, Walmart has sponsored entirely free admission, with a 20 million contribution.

Walton started buying art in the 1970s, eventually becoming a serious collector, often bidding with Christie’s and Sotheby’s by telephone mounted on a horse (she raises, breeds and rides cutting horses at her ranch in Texas) – at times spending 20 million USD on art just in one day.

She has extracted revered masterworks from the collections of major art museums, causing a flurry of controversy, for example, with her 2005 purchase of “Kindred Spirits” (1849), by Asher B. Durand, from the New York Public Library for a reported 35 million USD. Her hunt for American art has also surveyed some of the more important auctions of recent decades: from the landmark Christie’s auction of the art collection of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent that took place in Paris, she bought such exquisite works as “The Indian and the Lily” (1887) by George de Forest Brush and “October Interior” (1963) by Fairfield Porter. In a move that has contributed to the art establishment’s increasing respect and approval for the project, Don Bacigalupi was appointed director of Crystal Bridges Museum. He is the former director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, where he oversaw the construction of a Glass Pavilion designed by Japanese architectural firm Sanaa among many other leadership initiatives.

Furthermore, Crystal Bridges Museum announced in early December 2011 its involvement in a four-year collaboration between the musée du Louvre, the High Museum of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art. The four institutions will produce programming and annual, focused installations of American and European Art drawing from their collections. The inaugural exhibition launches January 14th, 2012 at the Louvre with “New Frontier/ Thomas Cole and the Birth of Landscape Painting in America”, traveling throughout the year to Crystal Bridges Museum, and then to the High Museum, under the title “American Encounters: Thomas Cole and the Narrative Landscape”.

Of Alice Walton’s collection at Crystal Bridges Museum, sixty-six purchases have been announced; this is just a tenth of what has been acquired. Interesting aspects of the collection include works on paper and sculpture by renowned Abstract Expressionists, whose oil paintings are perhaps over-inflated in price presently, and certain masterpieces by Marsden Hartley who is one of Walton’s favorite artists. The collection also focuses on lesser-known artists such as Janet Sobel (a female contemporary of Jackson Pollock), and claims one of the finest collections of Colonial portraiture, that of the Levy-Franks family.

The American aesthetic tradition finds a pointed vision and a firm sense of place in the country’s heartland. What began as pleasure has ended in posterity.

Crystal BridgesMuseum of American Art
600 Museum Way
Bentonville, Arkansas 72712 USA