RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A big event in the American art world is happening this Friday in a small city in Arkansas. It's the opening of Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, a museum funded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. It might not be as large as the Metropolitan in New York or the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., but critics say it will be one of the best collections of American art in the world.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that Crystal Bridges is often referred to as the Wal-Mart Museum, even though the corporation has little to do with it.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: If you're looking for an actual Wal-Mart Museum, the closest you're going to get is the Wal-Mart Gallery in the Wal-Mart Visitors Center in Bentonville.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
BLAIR: More than 11,000 people work at the company's headquarters here. But Bentonville is not exactly a thriving metropolis. There's a small town square. The rest, pretty much strip malls and hotels.
MONICA DIVIS, EMPLOYEE, WAL-MART: It looks like Walton's truck?
BLAIR: Monica Divis and her mother, Rita, are sitting outside a restaurant on the square. Monica has worked for Wal-Mart for 22 years. She says people from around the world come here to do business with Wal-Mart.
WAL-MART: If you sit out here long enough you're going to hear several languages spoken around here. We were just in the visitors' center and there was a lady from China buying things to take back, because we have Wal-Mart in China. There's Wal-Mart in Japan. So it is becoming an international destination, if you will.
BLAIR: But when it comes to the arts, there hasn't been much, says Rita Divis.
RITA DIVIS: In this part of the world we need that desperately.
BLAIR: Alice Walton agrees. With the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Walton has said she wants to tell the story of America through art. And walking through the museum is like taking a tour - not just of great art, but of American history and culture.
There are famous portraits of George Washington. Nineteenth century works by Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. An eye-popping abstract piece from African-American artist Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol's "Dolly Parton."
DON BACIGALUPI: So continuing into the 19th century from the mid century, and the Civil War moment, beyond...
BLAIR: On a recent press preview of Crystal Bridges, director Don Bacigalupi showed off the galleries and classrooms.
BACIGALUPI: One of which is what we call the Experience Studio. It's just a kind of drop-in place for children and families to try their hand at things. So if they get excited by watercolor they can go and take a watercolor class next store. Or whatever it is.
BLAIR: From the outside, the museum building itself is a work of art with its curved copper roof - it looks almost like an enormous creature, nestled in the woods. It was designed by Moshe Safdie.
MOSHE SAFDIE: It's a rugged landscape. We're harnessing nature here. And the idea is to experience art with nature together.
BLAIR: Safdie is the same architect who did the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and the new Kauffman Center in Kansas City.
The grounds have three and a half miles of walking and biking trails. The museum staff is hoping nature will lure people who might not otherwise be interested in art.
BACIGALUPI: I think the museum is richly accessible to a whole range of audience members, potential audience members.
BLAIR: The massive undertaking - the collection, the building, the trails - has been bankrolled by, among others, the Walton Family Foundation. They gave $1.2 billion for an endowment. That's billion. The Wal-Mart Foundation gave $20 million so that admission to Crystal Bridges could be free. But not everyone who works for Wal-Mart is excited about it.
JEROME ALLEN: My name is Jerome Allen. I'm from store 5312, Fort Worth, Texas.
BLAIR: It was purely coincidence. But a day before the museum press preview, Jerome Allen and about 150 other Wal-Mart workers from around the country also went to Bentonville for completely different reasons.
ALLEN: We're not getting the respect that we deserve as employees.
BLAIR: Jerome Allen says he had not heard of the art museum. But he says he'll be back because they didn't get the meeting they wanted with Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke.
ALLEN: When I return, because we will return, and I might stop into the art museum.
BLAIR: But for Ernest Davis that's out of the question. He works at a Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club in St. Louis, Missouri.
ERNEST DAVIS: I have no interest in a museum because it might be full of lies.
BLAIR: Will that kind of distrust of Wal-Mart spill over to the museum? The Crystal Bridges staff insists there is no connection between the two.
BACIGALUPI: I don't feel aligned with the corporation at all.
BLAIR: Don Bacigalupi says no one at Wal-Mart is involved in the museum's daily operations, and Alice Walton invested her own money to build Crystal Bridges. Of course her fortune is built on Wal-Mart stock.
Lorraine Millot is a writer for the French newspaper Liberation.
LORRAINE MILLOT: Even if it's not called Wal-Mart Museum, it is Wal-Mart'smoney.
BLAIR: Millot was also on the recent press tour in Bentonville.
MILLOT: It's a very nice museum. It's a place of pure beauty. It's just the very opposite of everything Wal-Mart is doing. It's the focus of the museum is on American art, whereas Wal-Mart stores focus on cheap imports from China.
BLAIR: Now, throughout history, wealthy arts patrons have helped build cultural institutions: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, more recently Eli Broad.
Before coming to Crystal Bridges, Kevin Murphy was a curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in California.
KEVIN MURPHY: I mean do people not go to the Huntington because Henry Huntington was a railroad baron and, you know, was discriminatory in his practices and treated workers unfairly? I don't think people don't go to those museums because the robber barons of the Gilded Age were associated with some pretty - what one might've said were unfair practices.
BLAIR: Maybe not. But to get to Crystal Bridges, people will still have to go to Bentonville, Arkansas. Will the trip be worth their while? There is an airport which Alice Walton also helped build. There are other things to do, like hiking in the Ozarks or a side trip to the 19th century town Eureka Springs. And a visit to the real Wal-Mart Gallery, which includes Sam Walton's pick-up truck.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.