The new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on November 11 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Housed in a building designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the museum features an impressive collection of American art amassed by Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and heiress to the company’s fortune. Bentonville, a small city in the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas, is also home to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters.
John Wilmerding, the distinguished historian of American art, advised Walton in her purchases for the new museum. Among the most important works at the Crystal Bridges are paintings by Asher B. Durand, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, and Norman Rockwell. Despite its relatively small size and remote location, the collection has instantly become one of the best in the country for American art.
Some critics have had a hard time regarding the Crystal Bridges as anything other than the “Wal-Mart Museum of Art.” And Walton’s acquisitions in recent years have not been without controversy. In 2005 she outbid such New York institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art to obtain Durand’s Kindred Spirits, a major landscape of the Hudson River School, from the New York Public Library. But she failed in her attempt the following year to secure Eakins’s masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. After a citywide campaign to match Walton’s $68 million offer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts arranged to purchase the work jointly in 2007, and thereby kept the painting from leaving the city. Both institutions were forced to sell other works by Eakins in their collections to raise the necessary funds.