19 June, 2011

19 June - A Bentonville Bilbao?

Is Bentonville the new Bilbao? On 11-11-11, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will open its doors in the unlikely city of Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum will be 201,000 square feet, over twice the size of the Whitney Museum of American Art and will chronicle the entire story of American art from the Colonial era of the late 1600s to contemporary works including Chuck Close, Kara Walker, Mark di Suvero, Walton Ford, James Turrell, and Roxy Paine. This project is the brainchild of Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune.

In addition to Ms. Walton’s lavish spending to build the collection (over 400 works will be displayed upon the opening of the museum) and initiate the project, her family has pledged to give $800 million to the new art museum, the largest cash donation ever made to a U.S. art museum. Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal explains that “the gift from the Walton Family Foundation trumps the $660 million in oil stocks that J. Paul Getty bequeathed to his namesake Los Angeles museum more than three decades ago.” According to Don Bacigalupi, the museum's executive director, "$325 million from the family's gift this week was earmarked to buy additional artworks. Another $350 million will go to cover the museum's operating expenses (around $16 million a year), and the rest, around $125 million, will be set aside for future upkeep of the complex."

The museum's “encyclopedic sweep (is) reminiscent of the ambitions of the robber-baron museum builders in the Gilded Age, but rarely attempted by new museums today. Billionaire Eli Broad, for example, has pledged nearly $340 million to build and endow a new museum for his collection in Los Angeles, but his vast holdings only cover the past few decades of U.S. and international art.” (Crow)

This is a massive undertaking in any city, but this is located in Bentonville, Arkansas. Why? Because Ms. Walton seeks to bring high art to this middle-American town of 35,000, best known as the headquarters of Wal-Mart. The Crystal Bridges website describes their mission, in addition to expanding access to art, cultural and learning resources, "will also spur the continued economic development of Northwest Arkansas.”

This brings to mind the Guggenheim Bilbao, now the landmark of the city. Built by starchitect Frank Gehry, Bilbao was transformed virtually overnight from a backwater to be avoided to a must see destination. As the city’s website describes “Bilbao was changed forever. Then came the obvious knock on effects of hotels opening, the airport expanding, upgrading of all facilities, extra employment etc etc. Today the advances continue as Bilbao continues to strive to make itself a tourist friendly destination.”

Ms. Walton described that “for years I’ve been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world. I thought this is something we desperately need, and what a difference it would have made were it here when I was growing up.” Carol Vogel of the New York Times reported that the museum is “planning for about 250,000 visitors in their first year and expect an annual operating budget of $16 million to $20 million. In addition to the 120 full-time jobs the institution is creating, they said, it will pump millions of tourist dollars into northwest Arkansas.”

An interesting story to follow – certainly a worthwhile collection to visit. Let's hope the Field of Dreams concept works for Bentonville as it did Bilbao, "if you build it, they will come."

images: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Bilbao

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