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Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges
11 Jul 2012
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From "Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges: A Primer":

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a new complex scheduled to open this November in Bentonville, Arkansas. The site, of course, is no coincidence, as the force behind Crystal Bridges is none other than Alice Walton, a Walmart heiress whose assets are valued at over $23 billion dollars. As both its supporters and detractors agree, Crystal Bridges will reshape the conversation within American museum culture and within the American arts as a whole – indeed, Ms. Walton's high-profile acquisitions have been causing waves for years. 

One of several perspectives on Art of the Rural’s full-length article on the topic, Carol Vogel's New York Times article, "A Billionaire’s Eye for Art Shapes Her Singular Museum," contains an interview with Ms. Walton. (The New Yorker also has a recent feature, accessible to subscribers) Here are the opening paragraphs:

“The era of the world-class museum built by a single philanthropist in the tradition of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Pierpont Morgan Jr. and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney may seem to have passed, but Alice L. Walton is bringing it back. 

“Yet her mission is unlike those of her predecessors, or of more recent art patrons like Ronald S. Lauder and his Neue Galerie. They set out to put great works on display in cultural capitals like New York and Boston. Instead, Ms. Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – the first major institution in 50 years dedicated to the vast spectrum of American art, to be housed in a building more than twice the size of the current Whitney Museum of American Art – seeks to bring high art to middle America here in this town of 35,000 that is best known as the home of Wal-Mart.

“Ms. Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart’s founder, Sam Walton, has worked on the museum for nearly a decade, but has said little about it in public until now. In a recent interview at Town Branch, her family home here, she said she wanted to turn Bentonville into an international destination for art lovers when the museum opens on Nov. 11. At the moment the most significant nearby cultural attractions are two hours away: a museum of Western and American Indian art in Tulsa, Okla., and, in the other direction, the country-music magnet of Branson, Mo.

A number of loaded cultural markers dot the landscape of these first paragraphs: world-class, high-art, middle-America, cultural attractions. With all of these notions staked to the presumably small "town" of Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Bridges simultaneously takes advantage of rural-urban and high-low culture binaries just as it works to refute them. And this is not to mention the regional dynamic itself, of Arkansas and the Ozarks within the broader American consciousness. 

Lisa Pruitt of Legal Ruralism has addressed the question of Bentonville, and its rural "heartland" status, on two recent occasions. Her critique of a Los Angeles Times piece zeroes in on how journalists are reading, or misreading, the rural component to this story: 

“But what really caught my attention was the lede's use of the word "rural":

“‘It makes for a good story, but the munificent $800-million gift from the family that owns Wal-Mart, meant to endow programs and operations at Alice Walton's under-construction art museum in rural Arkansas, is not the largest such gift ever made to a U.S. art museum.’

“It seems to me that the writer uses the adjective "rural" here to diminish the place – just as the story also puts the museum endeavor in perspective (the largest endowment, the journalist informs us, was from J. Paul Getty to the Los Angeles art museum that bears his name because, adjusted for inflation, that gift would be three times the Walton gift to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Otherwise, why use such a geographical descriptor at all? Perhaps to distance and distinguish the place from uber-urban LA?

Art Culture Innovation Rural/Regional Arkansas Challenges Gallery South
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