Wal-Mart Heir's Bid for Art Riles Philadelphians A bid by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton to purchase the 1875 Thomas Eakins painting "The Gross Clinic" is causing an outcry in Philadelphia, where many consider it part of the city's cultural landscape. Walton, ranked by Forbes as the world's ninth-richest person, is building a museum of American art in Bentonville, Ark.
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Wal-Mart Heir's Bid for Art Riles Philadelphians

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Wal-Mart Heir's Bid for Art Riles Philadelphians

Wal-Mart Heir's Bid for Art Riles Philadelphians

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Philadelphia, arts and cultural leaders are racing to stop a prized painting from leaving the city. "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins has belonged to Thomas Jefferson University for over a century. Now, the university is selling it for $68 million.

From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Except for a few years when he studied abroad, Thomas Eakins lived his whole life in Philadelphia. He painted Philadelphians doing what they really did. "The Gross Clinic" is one of this most important works. It's a portrait of surgeon Samuel Gross who's lifting a piece of diseased bone from a patient's thigh while his students watch.

Dr. GARY CARPENTER (Thomas Jefferson University): He has turned away from the operation. He has got the blood on his hands, but his eyes are out to the medical students, and he's telling them what he did, because that's the whole essence of Jefferson's being here.

ROSE: Pediatrician Gary Carpenter has taught at Thomas Jefferson University for almost 40 years. It's the same medical school where Samuel Gross taught a century ago. Carpenter and I are standing outside the school building where the painting hangs because university officials wouldn't let us record inside. Feelings about "The Gross Clinic" have been running high since last month when Jefferson announced it would sell the painting. Anne d'Harnoncourt is director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ms. ANNE d'HARNONCOURT (Philadelphia Museum of Art): It'd be a great painting in any museum. In Philadelphia, it's a great painting plus and extraordinary icon of Philadelphia's creative, intellectual and professional life.

ROSE: The art museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are leading the effort to keep the painting in Philadelphia, as are other civic leaders, including the CEO of Public Radio Station WHYY. Even Mayor John Street has gotten into the act. Street is recommending that the city commission declare the painting as historic object, meaning, Jefferson would need the commission's permission to move it.

Mr. JOHN STREET (Mayor of Philadelphia): Certain things are irreplaceable in the heart and soul of our citizens. And if we don't keep them here, someday, someone will look back and wonder what were they thinking.

ROSE: What makes the sale even more painful for Philadelphians is where the painting may be going and who may be buying it. The $68 million offer comes from a partnership of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Crystal Bridges doesn't exist yet. The museum is slated to open in 2009 near Bentonville, Arkansas. It's the creation of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who plans to stock museum with great American art of the 19th century.

Professor ALAN WALLACH (College of William & Mary): In many ways, she is behaving like the robber barons of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries who went to Europe and bought everything they could.

ROSE: Alan Wallach teaches art history at the College of William & Mary. Wallach says today those paintings hang in some of the country's finest museums. He says Alice Walton, whose personal worth is estimated at more than $15 billion is doing the same thing the original Robert Barons did.

Professor WALLACH: Names like Frick, and Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, one of the ways that began to soften their image was to engage in cultural philanthropy.

ROSE: Alice Walton would not grant an interview for this story, neither with her adviser, art historian John Wilmerding and neither with anyone from Crystal Bridges. Even her critics acknowledged that Walton has good taste.

But her efforts have sparked controversy before. Last year, she bought the Hudson River School painting "Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand at auction from the New York Public Library. Arts leaders complain she was hijacking one of the state's cultural treasures. The New York Public Library said it needed the money.

That's what the trustees of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia say too. University officials say they'll use proceeds from the sale of "The Gross Clinic" to fund new scholarships and other educational initiatives. In the meantime, dozens of visitors are taking a last look at the painting on display at Jefferson. First year medical school student Sam Grodofsky is one of them.

Mr. SAM GRODOFSKY: I appreciate that work of art. I don't think it, you know, has really any impact in our class.

ROSE: So in that sense, you wouldn't really be that upset to see it gone, I guess.

Mr. GRODOFSKY: Correct. In fact, I think instead of doing a better service of being in an institution where more people can look at it versus in a corner of a fringe building in Philadelphia.

ROSE: Grodofsky adds he'd rather see the painting at the museum here than one in Arkansas. Local institutions say they've raised more than a third of the $68 million that will take to keep the painting in Philadelphia. They have until December 26 to come up with the rest.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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