BENTONVILLE, Ark. — As an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, Alice Walton had the means to buy almost any piece of art on the market. So she scooped up one masterpiece after another: an iconic portrait of
She amassed an enviable collection of treasures spanning most of American history, and now it’s about to go on display in an unlikely place, a wooded ravine in a small city in northwest Arkansas.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is regarded as the nation’s most important new art museum in a generation, offering the type of exhibits more commonly found in New York or Los Angeles. But this hall of paintings is taking shape in Bentonville, a community of 35,000 people best known as home of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. headquarters.
Ms. Walton’s collection provided a “sort of instant museum,” said Henry Adams, an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Rather than starting with a small collection and slowly expanding, Crystal Bridges will be fully formed from Day One.
“You usually don’t have a museum that appears out of nowhere,” said Mr. Adams, who ranked the new place “somewhere between the top and the middle” of American museums.
When the museum opens Friday, many of the paintings will be on public display for the first time because Ms. Walton bought them from private collections.
In the case of public art, Ms. Walton’s acquisition efforts drew howls from some art lovers and critics on the East Coast, who bemoaned the notion that cherished works were being commandeered for display in an Ozark mountain town.
But experts say that story has been told before.
“Think of how the owners of the great collections in Europe and England must have felt at the beginning of the 20th century, when a lot of their art was coming into this country,” said David M. Sokol, art history professor emeritus of the University of Chicago.
At the time, industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie used their fortunes to acquire fine art from wealthy Europeans, many of whom sold their paintings to sustain lavish lifestyles.
One piece that provoked controversy was Asher Durand’s masterpiece “Kindred Spirits,” a dreamy depiction of two men in the Catskill Mountains that had been displayed for generations at the New York Public Library. Ms. Walton bought it in 2005 for a reported $35 million, sparking an outcry that the library had cast off a beloved part of its history.
She also acquired a Thomas Eakins portrait of a medical professor for a reported $20 million from Thomas Jefferson University.
Much of the art has deep ties to the region. The collection includes works by painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton, grandnephew of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the strident advocate of Manifest Destiny for whom Bentonville was named in the 1830s.
Ms. Walton was an art collector long before she proposed opening a museum, and she started buying specifically for the project in 2005. Her plan was to create something important for her hometown, a community that has more than doubled in size since 1990, mainly because of Wal-Mart, which has enticed many of its suppliers to open offices here.