Is a Powerful New Philanthropic Ally of Arts Education Rising in the South?

 Crystal bridges Museum of American Art

Crystal bridges Museum of American Art

Back in 2014, we predicted that within the next decade or so, Alice Walton would become the most important arts philanthropist in the United States. We also predicted Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art would become far more than a museum, but also a grantmaking foundation itself—supporting individual artists, arts education, and arts organizations. (Similar to how the well-endowed J. Paul Getty Trust morphed into a far-ranging "cultural and philanthropic institution," even as it remained best known for its two museums in Los Angeles.)

Why the speculative musing on such matters? Because Alice Walton has a net worth of $37 billion, making her one of the wealthiest people in America, and she's already established herself as a high-powered and visionary arts philanthropist by creating Crystal Bridges, one of the most expensive and consequential new art museums to open in decades, with a price tag estimated at over $1.5 billion. It makes sense to wonder where this story is going. 

So far, things seem to be tracking along the lines we predicted. Crystal Bridges has welcomed 2.7 million visitors since its opening in 2011, an impressive stream of visitors given that it's based in Bentonville, Arkansas, which has a population under 50,000. Last year, the museum announced plans to transform an idled Kraft cheese plant into a space for contemporary art exhibitions and performances. It has also taken its expansive “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” exhibition on the road to museums across the country. And for good measure, a few months after its five-year anniversary in 2016, it acquired a "massive geodesic dome with 61 glass eyes."

Yet despite all this, recent news suggests that Walton and her team are also eager to tackle timely and complex challenges.

In a twist, Crystal Bridges recently found itself at the receiving end of a grant, to the tune of $15 million, from the Windgate Charitable Foundation. Based in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, the Windgate Charitable Foundation is a family foundation established in 1993. Its focus areas include art education, arts & crafts, K-12 education, higher education, and Christian higher education.

RelatedA Look at the Windgate Charitable Foundation’s Giving in Arkansas and Beyond

Indeed, the gift is a family affair, both figuratively and literally—much of the foundation is composed of donations of Walmart stock acquired by the family over many years. Unsurprisingly, the foundation has a close relationship with Crystal Bridges, having funded a distance education project with Walton's museum that developed online high school credit courses and new networks for classroom access through the Arkansas Department of Education and other platforms.

Windgate's new gift will build on this relationship, creating the Windgate Educational Excellence Through the Arts Endowed Fund. According to Crystal Bridges, this "first-of-its-kind fund" supports "an ongoing process that identifies current issues facing schools and develops responsive arts-based initiatives to improve student outcomes." The initiatives will focus on "quality education, arts access, learning readiness, and workforce skills with an emphasis on underrepresented and lower socioeconomic youth."

The gift may not be as headline-grabbing as transforming an idled cheese plant or acquiring a massive geodesic dome—then again, what is?—but I'd argue it's even more important.

Arts education remains a huge issue in the arts and education philanthropy fields. Despite significant progress in raising awareness around the benefits of arts education, not everyone—particularly the politicians that control the purse strings—seem to agree. 

For too long, proponents of arts education have been hamstrung by a lack of compelling, quantifiable evidence pointing to its tangible benefits. The vague—and albeit intuitive—selling point of "arts education is good for kids!" won't fly in a world of looming budget cuts and rampant performance testing.  

I hit on this larger challenge back in 2015. Commenting on a $6.6 million grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation to support Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center's Art From the Start program, the center's vice president of advancement, Janine Musholt, said, "We know that exposure to the arts benefits students in a variety of ways, from improved test scores to a better understanding of the world around them."

Indeed, "we"—that is, proponents of arts education—agree with Musholt's assessment, but more importantly, do legislators, governors, and heck, presidents agree with it? (We already know the answer regarding the latter.) Advocates could make a far more compelling case with hard numbers, or in its absence, more extensive and robust qualitative research, which is why I'm particularly bullish on the Windgate/Crystal Bridges partnership.

Crystal Bridges will provide fellowship opportunities for post-graduate-level students as well as undergraduate internships to lead "formative research, project development, and implementation efforts" into how the arts—and museums in particular—generate positive educational outcomes. After conducting research, the museum will convene scholars, practitioners and stakeholders to "further understand the issue and collaboratively brainstorm solutions."

This isn't Crystal Bridges first foray into exploring the benefits of museum attendance. Back in 2013, researchers conducted large-scale, random-assignment study of school tours to Crystal Bridges and concluded that "strong causal relationships do in fact exist between arts education and a range of desirable outcomes."

Of course, when it comes to articulating the value of arts education, there's more than one way to skin a cat. For example, I recently looked at how an organization called the Boston Public Schools Art Expansion has emerged as one of the country's leading lights in boosting arts education for public school kids.

But with arts education once again on the chopping block, more work is needed to expand the body of evidence illustrating its benefits. The Windgate/Crystal Bridges partnership will contribute to this undertaking, and that's certainly a good thing.

Walton herself isn't quoted in Crystal Bridge's press release, but she, quite naturally, remains inextricably linked with the museum she created. And when the "most important arts philanthropist" in the United States is attached to the cause of arts education, however indirectly, that's a very good thing.