Wal-Mart fortune heiress Alice Walton unveiled before a throng of well-wishers and Bentonville boosters Monday the plans for her $50 million museum of American art, Crystal Bridges, an architectural wonder that upstaged the revealed works in the collection to hang there.
Moshe Safdie of Boston, who’s designed museums in Canada and Los Angeles, has designed a cluster of buildings and bridges that will hug the sides of a ravine on 100 wooded acres just a few blocks north of the Bentonville town square. The museum — which Safdie said is an expression of its location — is equal parts wood, water and glass, its key elements two arcing bridges that will span pools drawing from Crystal Springs, a creek that flows north through the rectangular piece of oak-hickory woods once owned by Buffalo River champion Neil Compton. The bridges will also serve as dams to create 80-foot-wide pools. Waters from the creek will fill both pools, one fed directly from the creek that will flow beneath the second into a spillway and the second fed indirectly with still, reflective waters. The museum’s 100,000 square feet will be spread over several structures around and facing the pools, including one built into the slope of the ravine and dedicated to Arkansas art.
Walton’s collection — she told a reporter Monday that she had already purchased some 100 paintings, drawings and materials for the museum — may be somewhat stuffier than the architecture that will contain it. Among the works already acquired and publicized are an 18th-century portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, a 19th-century landscape by Arthur Durand purchased at a record price, and a Norman Rockwell illustration of a scruffy little boy trying to nurse a dog.
It is hard to imagine the Rockwell, with the unfortunate name of “Sick Puppy,” hanging beside a terrific impressionist oil by Marsden Hartley, but the collection promises to be iconoclastic. Consultant John Wilmerding, a professor at Princeton and trustee of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, said Walton combines a “passion for portraits” with a good eye and astute business decisions. She has amassed manuscripts, books and other materials that Wilmerding said will make the museum a “major American research library.”
Both Wilmerding and Walton acknowledged they don’t agree on every purchase. “I try to listen,” Walton said, but there are times when her sensibility, driven by a desire to portray American history through the visual arts, wins out over Wilmerding’s.
Other works in the collection revealed Monday include 19th-century paintings by narrative artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, flower and landscape artist John La Farge, Native American portraitist Charles Bird King, naturalist Martin Johnson Heade and figurative painter Winslow Homer.
Computer-generated images of the galleries created for the presentation revealed other choices — a figurative sculpture by Alexander Stirling Calder, father of the modernist Alexander Calder, paintings by 20th century realist Fairfield Porter and 19th-century master Eastman Johnson, and pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts.
Wilmerding said the collection will eventually include work by “every major American artist,” but that it would end about mid-20th century. The design of the museum will not accommodate the monumental abstractions of the 1960s New York School, though the outdoor sculpture gardens could include works by such abstract sculptors as David Smith, depending on the cost of acquisition. “I promise the collection will be worthy and equal to the brilliant design” of the museum itself, he said.
Wilmerding also said he expects Walton will create the “core collection” that will be present at the museum’s opening in 2009, but that, “like any founder,” she will then turn over the reins to the museum’s staff professionals and begin to take a largely fiduciary role. He said people will come to see the museum “not as a Walton toy” but as an important cultural venue that will put Bentonville on the map.
Asked if he were interested in taking on the job of director once the museum is open, Wilmerding said time would tell: “It depends on what Mrs. Walton wants.”
Landscape architect Peter Walker, who is working on the grounds and landscaping for the World Trade Center memorial in New York City, said the site presents a “tremendous problem,” but one he intends to solve. There will be two entrances to the museum park, a hiking trail just under half a mile long starting at the Neil Compton Garden on the south boundary and a drive into the property from J Street on the east boundary of Walton’s woods. Parking will be underground.
J Street — which is state Highway 112 — is currently a two-lane road that can be accessed by the Highway 102 exit on Interstate 540. Bentonville residents interviewed by the Arkansas Times on Monday were unconcerned that visitors, predicted to number 250,000 a year, would have to drive small neighborhood streets to reach the museum.
Walton, 55, dressed in a black jacket and pants and wearing her long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, said Monday her background in art — she is an amateur artist herself — and love of history inspired her to build the museum, which she will dedicate to the memory of her parents, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen. She said her first purchases of art were in high school, “with the little I could afford” at the time. (She’s now worth $20 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.) She got serious about collecting about 15 years ago.