Wal-Mart Heiress' Show Puts A High Price On Art

Alice Walton's long-awaited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens Saturday in Arkansas, and the art market is already feeling the impact of the Wal-Mart heiress and the money she's throwing at acquisitions. Not everyone is happy about it. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This weekend, the eyes of the art world are turned toward Bentonville, Arkansas. That's where the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is opening its doors for the first time. Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton spent the last decade acquiring great works spanning the entire history of art in America. The result is a top-tier collection in a region that's never had one.

But Walton's critics say her unprecedented spending spree has made other museums and cities poorer. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: At a press preview of Crystal Bridges, curator David Houston led reporters on a tour of the modern wing.

DAVID HOUSTON: In this gallery, you will have a wall of small Jackson Pollacks from his psychoanalytical period. There's a wall here that's the '40s, with David Smith drawing...

ROSE: It's been 50 years since anyone opened a major museum dedicated to American art. Crystal Bridges is even more impressive when you consider that it spans four centuries - from the colonial era to the present day. John Wilmerding is a professor of art history at Princeton and a long-time advisor to Alice Walton.

JOHN WILMERDING: Nobody, including myself, who's an Americanist thought that you could begin to acquire great American masterpieces in today's market. We had all thought they were already in public collections or in private hands.

ROSE: Alice Walton has shown that there are still masterpieces to be had if you've got piles of money and the stomach for some controversy.

LEE ROSENBAUM: She's controversial for a reason.

ROSE: Journalist Lee Rosenbaum writes the blog CultureGrrl. Rosenbaum was one of many New Yorkers who were shocked in 2005 when the New York Public Library decided to sell the iconic Hudson River School painting Kindred Spirits by Asher Durand for a reported $35 million.

ROSENBAUM: The library decided to sell it. Alice Walton acquired it, causing a great uproar in New York, which considered it a quintessentially New York painting. It's the Catskill Mountains going to the Ozarks.

ROSE: Even Walton's defenders concede that she's had a measurable effect on the art market. Eric Widing is vice president of American art at Christie's, which has helped Walton build her collection.

ERIC WIDING: Alice's presence in the marketplace has clearly brought out works of art that might not otherwise have been offered for sale.

ROSE: One example might be the Gross Clinic, perhaps the greatest work by 19th century Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins. Christie's helped to sell the painting for $68 million. Widing says he worked with the seller, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, to make sure that local museums would have a chance to match the price.

WIDING: Before we even called Alice - and she was our first phone call - we advised her that it was going to be opened up to broader bidding to the museums in Philadelphia. They were able to match her bid and the painting remained in Philadelphia. That's great. And it was an open, transparent process, which benefited everybody.

ROSE: Including Jefferson, which used the proceeds to improve its campus. Still, the transaction left a bad taste in the mouth of critics like Steven Conn, Who teaches public history at Ohio State University.

STEVEN CONN: There was, I think, an almost extortionate quality to what Jefferson University did. It announced it was going to sell this painting, and then it gave people a ticking clock of six weeks to try and match the offer from Alice Walton.

ROSE: But Walton's advisor John Wilmerding insists that she isn't forcing anyone to sell anything.

WILMERDING: She didn't go to the Jefferson Medical College, say I want to buy the Gross Clinic. It was offered to her through Christie's. They decided to sell it. So to turn it around and say she's raiding is a little bit off.

ROSE: Walton's critics agree that the institutions on the selling end have a responsibility here, too. Ethical guidelines in the museum field say you should only sell a work of art in order to buy more art. But those rules don't necessarily apply to libraries and schools that happen to own valuable art works.

Consider Fisk University in Nashville. The struggling school struck a $30 million deal with Crystal Bridges to share its collection of paintings by Georgia O'Keefe and others. That deal is still tied up in court. Nevertheless, blogger Lee Rosenbaum says it shows Alice Walton's destabilizing effect on the art world.

ROSENBAUM: You can't exactly blame Alice for taking advantage of opportunities. On the other hand, her resources are so great that they provide a tremendous temptation for museums and other cultural institutions to monetize works that would better remain in their own communities.

ROSE: Alice Walton also paid a visit to what was then Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia shortly before the school's board decided to put its valuable painting collection up for auction. But Walton's advisor John Wilmerding counters that it would be better for these works to wind up in a museum like Crystal Bridges than in a private collector's living room.

WILMERDING: Whatever the controversy of the payment or the acquisition, they're in the public domain. She's bought them for the public good. And that's to me the answer that ends it.

ROSE: One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Crystal Bridges will serve a part of the country - northwest Arkansas - that's never had a great art museum before. And historian Steven Conn says Alice Walton, with her Wal-Mart fortune - is not so different from the 19th century robber barons who built the great museums from the East Coast.

CONN: This is exactly what places like Boston and New York were deliberately trying to do themselves - we're more than just a collection of businessmen, we have high culture too and we're going to build the Metropolitan Museum of Art to prove it. And that's essentially what she's doing in Bentonville, Arkansas 100 years later.

ROSE: If history is any guide, the success of Crystal Bridges may ultimately be judged by what's on the walls and not on how it got there. Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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