The American art world's biggest event in decades is happening this week — but it's not where you'd expect it to be.
Bentonville, Ark., is home to Wal-Mart headquarters and, starting Nov. 11, it will also be home to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and what some critics are calling one of the world's best collections of American art.
Crystal Bridges is the brainchild of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. While it's not as vast as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the museum is set to showcase an impressive collection of American art, including well-known pieces by Alexander Calder and Devorah Sperber.
Bringing The Art World To Bentonville
Crystal Bridges is often referred to as "the Wal-Mart museum," but the corporation has little to do with the art. If you go looking for an actual Wal-Mart museum in Bentonville, the closest you'll get is the Wal-Mart Visitor Center's Wal-Mart gallery.
The company's headquarters employs more than 11,000 in Bentonville, but it isn't exactly a thriving metropolis. It has a small town square, and the rest is pretty much strip malls.
Monica Divis and her mother, Rita Divis, sit outside a restaurant on the square. Monica, who has worked for Wal-Mart for 22 years, says people from all over the world visit Bentonville — and even move to the city — to do business with Wal-Mart.
"If you sit out here long enough, you're going to hear several languages spoken," she says. "We were just in the visitor's center, and there was a lady from China buying things to take back because we have a Wal-Mart in China. There's Wal-Mart in Japan. So it is becoming an international destination."
Still, according to Rita Divis, art is something Bentonville could use more of.
"In this part of the world," she says, "we need that desperately."
Walton has said she wants Crystal Bridges to tell the story of America through art, so visiting the museum is like taking a tour not just of great art but of American history and culture. There are portraits of George Washington and 19th-century works by Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. There's an eye-popping abstract piece from African-American artist Romare Bearden, and an Andy Warhol homage to country music star Dolly Parton.
According to museum director Don Bacigalupi, Crystal Bridges will also have interactive classrooms, one of which will be used to help kids bring out their inner artist.
"It's a kind of drop-in place for children and families to try their hand at things," Bacigalupi says. "So if they get excited by watercolor, they can go and take a watercolor class next-door."
Harnessing Art And Nature
From the outside, the museum building itself is a work of art. With its curved, copper roof, it looks like an enormous creature nestled in the woods of Bentonville.
Moshe Safdie — the architect responsible for Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center and the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. — designed Crystal Bridges. He says his goal is to create a dynamic environment for visitors to explore the heritage of America.
"It's a rugged landscape," Safdie says. "We're harnessing nature, and the idea is to experience art with nature together."
Located in Arkansas' Ozark Mountain region, the museum grounds have 3 1/2 miles of walking and biking trails. The hope is that the presence of nature will lure people who might not otherwise be interested in art.
"I think the museum is richly accessible to audience members [and] potential audience members," says museum director Bacigalupi.
Separating The Museum From The Company
Between the collection, the building and the trails, Crystal Bridges was a massive undertaking. The project has been bankrolled by, among others, the Walton Family Foundation, which gave $1.2 billion for an endowment, and the Wal-Mart Foundation, which gave $20 million so that admission to the museum could be free.
But not everyone who works at Wal-Mart is excited about the project.
Jerome Allen works at a Wal-Mart in Fort Worth, Texas. The day before the museum's media preview, he and about 150 other Wal-Mart employees from around the country came to Bentonville hoping to schedule a meeting with Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke. He says he hadn't heard about the new museum, but since he didn't get the meeting he wanted, he'll be back.
"We're not getting the respect we deserve as employees," Allen says. "When I return — and we will return — I might stop in the art museum."
A visit to the museum is out of the question for Ernest David, who works at a Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club in St. Louis, Mo.
"I have no interest in a museum because it might be full of lies," David says.
While it isn't clear yet how distrust of Wal-Mart might rub off on Crystal Bridges, Bacigalupi insists there's no connection between the two.
"I don't feel aligned with the corporation at all," he says.
According to Bacigalupi, nobody at Wal-Mart is involved with Crystal Bridge's daily operations — Alice Walton invested her own money into building the museum. Of course, her fortune is built on Wal-Mart stock.
"Even if it's not called [the] Wal-Mart Museum, it is Wal-Mart's money," says Lorraine Millot, a writer for the French newspaper Liberation who visited the museum for the media preview.
Millot praises the museum for its beauty. She says Crystal Bridges represents something very different from what Wal-Mart stands for.
"It's a place of pure beauty. It's just the opposite of what Wal-Mart's doing," Millot says. "The focus of the museum is American art, whereas Wal-Mart stores focus on cheap imports from China."
The Politics Of Philanthropy
There's no denying the contributions wealthy art patrons have made to America's cultural institutions. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie used his fortune to found Carnegie-Mellon University in 1904. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick opened his New York home and art collection to the public when he died in 1919. That same year, businessman Henry Huntington turned his ranch, library and art collection into a nonprofit educational trust known today as The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
Before becoming Crystal Bridges' curator of American art, Kevin Murphy was a curator at The Huntington. He says people don't boycott museums just because the companies that funded them might have had unfair practices in the past.
"Do people not go to The Huntington because Henry Huntington was a railroad baron, was discriminatory in his practices and treated workers unfairly?" he asks. "I don't think people don't go."
Maybe not, but to get to Crystal Bridges, people will still have to go to Bentonville, and many will need more than a museum to draw them there. There's hiking in the Ozarks, or a side trip to the former 19th-century resort town of Eureka Springs, Ark.
And, if visitors aren't opposed to it, there's always the real Wal-Mart gallery.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.