One bright morning last spring, the American art world woke to the news that "Kindred Spirits," the very emblem of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, had found a new home in the Ozarks after languishing in a nook of the New York Public Library for dusty ages.
New York's art mavens, who hadn't paid the painting all that much attention before, were outraged by the news. You'd think the Goths had just sacked Rome. Now it was one Alice Walton of a different tribe, the Waltons of Wal-Mart, who was pillaging New York's temples.
This brazen Arkie was no longer content to serve on the periphery of museum boards and the like; she was building a museum of her own-in Bentonville, Ark., of all unlikely places. To be called Crystal Bridges, it was to be a museum, school, theater and national magnet for art lovers. How dare she!
The New York Times' man in the arts, Michael Kimmelman, decried the sale of "Kindred Spirits" to "a big-name American billionaire," lamenting that, here in "America, celebrity and money are the measuring sticks of cultural value." As if it hadn't been the tycoons of another age-the Fricks and Rockefellers and Guggenheims-who'd made New York the capital of American art.
Now it's Alice Walton's turn, and it's become clear she has in mind something as distinctive as other museums that were the product of one determined dream-the Phillips in Washington, the Gardner in Boston, and the Barnes in Philadelphia.
Crystal Bridges is to be as different in spirit as each of those museums is from each other. It is to be not so much a private preserve as a gift to the rest of us. And not just the rest of us in Arkansas but far beyond.
Every time one of Crystal Bridges' remarkable acquisitions is announced, Alice Walton's dream project shines brighter. The latest is the best yet:
On a crisp fall morning last week, word came that, together with the National Gallery in Washington, Crystal Bridges is acquiring "The Gross Clinic," the very emblem of American realism.
When he painted it in 1875, Thomas Eakins modeled his picture after a Rembrandt. But he gave the scene a character of its own. It depicts Dr. Samuel Gross conducting an operation before a class of medical students, and it has a very American candor and clarity.