Will Alice Walton Become the Biggest Arts Philanthropist in America?

Here's a prediction: Alice Walton will emerge within the next decade or so as the most important arts philanthropist in the United States. And she'll create the largest arts foundation in the nation's history, bigger than either Getty or Mellon.

And Crystal Bridges is, well, the bridge she's building to that future. 

Many people are now aware of Crystal Bridges, the Bentonville art museum founded that opened in late 2011. A growing (and, at times, grudging) consensus is emerging that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is the most important new U.S. art museum since the Getty Center opened in Los Angeles in 1997. It's well known that Crystal Bridges, like the Getty, cost a fortune to develop — with hundreds of millions of dollars spent to acquire an unparalleled collection of American classics and another fortune spent on the actual museum, a 217,000-square-foot complex designed by the architect Moshe Safdie.

What is less well-known, though, is just how much money the Walton Family Foundation has given to the museum, in addition to the costs for art acquisition and construction (Read executive director Ed Kirby's IP profile). In 2010, a year before Crystal Bridges opened, the foundation gave two huge gifts to the Crystal Bridges Foundation totaling $1.2 billion. That came on top of previous Walton gifts to the foundation of nearly $400 million.

As of 2011, Crystal Bridges had an endowment on the order of $1 billion. Not a bad way to start out, given that the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has an endowment of about $1.5 billion, and opened in 1929.

Alice Walton has not said publicly that the big infusion of funds in 2010 came from her fortune, which is estimated at $33.5 billion, and the foundation's tax returns don't reveal where this money came from. But it seems likely that the money came from Alice Walton via the foundation. After all, the Walton Family Foundation doesn't have a substantial endowment, but instead works mainly as a pass-through foundation, taking in and spending huge sums of money each year.

Alice Walton has also not said much about her future arts philanthropy or the role that Crystal Bridges will play in this philanthropy. But given the size of Crystal Bridges' endowment, and how much money Alice Walton has, it makes sense to wonder whether that institution is likely to become far more than a museum, but also a grantmaking foundation itself—supporting individual arts, arts education, and arts organizations.

The obvious model here, of course, is the J. Paul Getty Trust. With assets of some $10 billion, the Trust is best known for managing the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Acropolis-like Getty Center that overlooks Los Angeles. In fact, though, the Trust also includes The Getty Foundation, which gives out over $30 million a year to both individuals and organizations. The foundation is based at the Getty Center and has five staff members.

If Alice Walton intends to engage in more ambitious philanthropy around the arts, Crystal Bridges would be an obvious platform to build on. Right now, though, the museum's website says nothing about grantmaking or other kinds of activities. And it's not clear that the Crystal Bridges complex itself is large enough to include an eventual arts foundation. Overall, it's about a quarter of the size of the Getty Center.

Still, three things are clear: Alice Walton has barely scratched the surface of her fortune, despite all she has spent on Crystal Bridges. She's a woman who is passionate about the arts. And with the establishment and generous endowment of the Crystal Bridges Foundation, she has now an institution in place that can administer her arts philanthropy outside the structure of the Walton Family Foundation.

My own bet? Crystal Bridges Foundation becomes one of the biggest arts foundations of the 21st century.