BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- When Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress and second richest woman in America, decided to build a Museum of American Art in her hometown deep in the Arkansas Ozarks, no one questioned her ability to spend money. Her daddy, Sam Walton, had left her a lot of it. Forbes puts her worth at $34.9 billion. What they questioned, expressed with bicoastal sneer and snark, was her ability to know what she was getting for daddy's money.
When she called the museum "Crystal Bridges," commemorating a natural stream to be traversed on bridges leading visitors to the art, the snobs got out their long knives, scoffing that the name sounded like a hillbilly stripper. She was regarded as a backwoods interloper in the Manhattan art world, a "culture vulture" forging a "false front for Wal-Mart," the naif peddling a hollow experience to the natives. The mascot of the state university, after all, is the feral razorback hog.
But Mrs. Walton, 64, (she kept her maiden name after two failed marriages) has loved art since, as a 10-year-old she bought her first "painting" at her father's 5-and-dime store on the town square, a print of Picasso's "Blue Nude." Five decades later she got the attention of the art world when she purchased "Kindred Spirits," a spectacular work of the Hudson River School by Asher B. Durand, for $35 million from the New York City Public Library. The art world howled. The painting is a piece of cultural history commemorating the friendship of Thomas Cole, the landscape painter and the poet William Cullen Bryant. It was thought much too important for the eyes of rubes.
But the intrepid collector, who had painted watercolors of flora and fauna with her mother on camping trips while daddy and her three brothers fished, had other ideas. "Kindred Spirits" was the perfect centerpiece for the regional museum to link art and nature. She hired architect Moshe Safdie, renowned for integrating buildings into the landscape, to design the museum.
The rustics cheered her, watching construction from an overlook deck, and came out in greater numbers when the $1.2 billion museum opened in November 2011. Eight of every 10 of the million visitors so far have been from Arkansas and its "touching states," Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.
A stream of bright yellow school busses pulls up to the museum with squealing teenagers from the surrounding states eager for their first look at real art.