Wal-Mart Heiress’s $1.2 Billion Castle Has Warhol, Glass Bridge

Peeking over a railing, I look down into a heavily wooded ravine where beefy buildings in concrete curve around courtyards and wrap two ponds vaulted by copper- roofed bridges.

This hidden castle is the Crystal Bridges museum, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

It houses a historical survey of American art collected in just a few years at astonishing cost at the instigation of Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) fortune.

Passing a stainless-steel tree sculpture by artist Roxy Paine, I cross a bridge to an elevator tower and descend three floors, where one of the bridges that give the museum its name opens up in front of me.

It’s a tour de force. Deep beams of yellow Arkansas pine vault overhead, rising and swelling outward like the belly of a particularly elegant whale. Light filters in from slots overhead. Outwardly slanting glass walls held together by elegant pipes, ball-joint fittings and cables pick up reflections from the wind-riffled surface of the ponds.

No art could compete with this spectacle. The vast space is used as a restaurant called Eleven and for parties.

With Walton, 62, architect Moshe Safdie chose a wooded streambed in a 120-acre swath of woodlands the family owns just north of the headquarters of the retail giant her father built. Safdie dammed the streams to form the ponds. Walton chose the generically bucolic name Crystal Bridges.

Sensual Safdie

Safdie, 73, doesn’t need to strain for grandeur; bold forms come to him naturally. He shaped balconied and arcaded gallery suites into broad crescents with draped copper roofs to echo the slope of the land. He tones down a characteristic bombast in recognition of the lovely ravine, and he achieves a lyricism and sensuality rarely found in other projects.

Tightly wedged, the 200,000 square feet (18,580 meters) of pavilions stare narcissistically at each other over the water. The Walton family has threaded the surrounding forest with pleasurable trails dotted with sculptures including a “Skyspace” installation by James Turrell.

As you enter the first two gallery suites devoted to art from the colonial era to the end of the 19th century, you encounter a collection that’s esthetically conservative and methodically assembled, including two famous portraits of George Washington (Charles Wilson Peale and Gilbert Stuart) and great painters of grand, idealized nature like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher Durand, whose 1849 “Kindred Spirits” cost $35 million.

Eakins Portraits

The museum displays two riveting portraits by Thomas Eakins. It wasn’t able to acquire a third masterpiece, “The Gross Clinic,” when $68 million was raised in Philadelphia to keep it in the city where it was painted.

The heart-stopping prices are unavoidable for a museum seeking work of this caliber. In 2010, the Walton Family Foundation contributed more than $1.2 billion to support acquisitions and operations as well as construction. An additional $20 million gift endows free admission at the museum, which opens to the public on Nov. 11.

Executive Director Don Bacigalupi said it won’t only represent the vision of Walton, who was an equity analyst and breeds cutting horses on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas. Professional curators guide display and acquisition, overseen by a board that Walton heads. About 450 works are on view, which is almost the entire collection.

Early-20th-century work is displayed in white-box galleries placed within the northern of the two pond-spanning bridge structures. The triumphal march of Arcadian American identity gives way to a richer story that includes the darker side of industrialized urban life.

Bedroom Eyes

The largest gallery suite shows off safe yet blue-chip modern works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper. Andy Warhol renders Dolly Parton with bedroom eyes beneath a cotton-candy puff of hair.

Recent acquisitions of contemporary art echo the earlier themes of portraiture, nature and American life more skeptically, such as a foreboding view of suburbia by Kerry James Marshall.

Walton’s lower profile may also blunt the widespread and condescending perception that she is a rube using bucks ill- gotten by dad’s retail rapacity to haul the nation’s patrimony to this remote Xanadu, where the rednecks won’t appreciate it.

She’s only done what a long line of wealthy collectors have done: bring culture home, where some extraordinary works can make a difference in peoples’ lives.

The strip-mall and big-box-store landscape of Bentonville is so bleak, however, that the care and commitment lavished on the museum feels like a mea culpa. Walmart’s empire of big-box stores has done much to obliterate the small-town charm you can find on Bentonville’s town square, where Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime is now a museum.

With square miles of churches and city halls built like metal-sided warehouses, you find not just a lack of civic grace in Bentonville but what seems a mean-spirited aversion to it.

While a museum won’t change that -- Bentonville isn’t Bilbao -- maybe people who love the museum will.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Courtyard and one of two copper-roofed structures that spans the ponds at Crystal Bridges, a new museum of American art opening in Bentonville, AR. The transparent structure, one of eight pavilions, hosts a restaurant.

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Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Courtyard and one of two copper-roofed structures that spans the ponds at Crystal Bridges, a new museum of American art opening in Bentonville, AR. The transparent structure, one of eight pavilions, hosts a restaurant. Close

Courtyard and one of two copper-roofed structures that spans the ponds at Crystal Bridges, a new museum of American... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The northern copper-roofed structure that bridges a pond at the Crystal Bridges Museum. The third in a sequence of five gallery suites, galleries within the bridge display early 20th-century art. Close

The northern copper-roofed structure that bridges a pond at the Crystal Bridges Museum. The third in a sequence of... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Laminated pine beams vault the restaurant and reception space at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The ceiling bridges two ponds and lets light in through skylights slotted into the beams overhead, as well as the glass wall suspended by cables and rods. Close

Laminated pine beams vault the restaurant and reception space at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russelll/Bloomberg

A view of 19th-century art galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum. The ceiling sweeps upward so that the roof meets the surrounding slope. The gallery curves to lead viewers through the five exhibition pavilions. Close

A view of 19th-century art galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum. The ceiling sweeps upward so that the roof meets... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A detail of an exhibition pavilion that bridges a pond at the Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, AR. Architect Moshe Safdie, working with structural engineer Buro Happold, devised a system of cables, rods and bolt-through window fasteners to make it appear that the wood roof structure floats almost unsupported. Close

A detail of an exhibition pavilion that bridges a pond at the Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, AR. Architect... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A high corridor facing a pond leads visitors to temporary galleries in the Crystal Bridges museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. Wrapping the outside of the galleries the corridor helps control daylight entering the exhibition space. Close

A high corridor facing a pond leads visitors to temporary galleries in the Crystal Bridges museum of American Art in... Read More

Source: Crystal Bridges Museuum via Bloomberg

George Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale between 1780 and 1782. It is one of two Washington portraits in the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Close

George Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale between 1780 and 1782. It is one of two Washington portraits in the... Read More

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