Beautiful Alignment: Walton Family Millions for an Art School with Global Ambitions

 The university of arkansas. photo:  Natalia Bratslavsky/shutterstock

The university of arkansas. photo:  Natalia Bratslavsky/shutterstock

Let's say you're Alice Walton, who we've called "America's most important arts philanthropist," and you've been working to transform your family's home region of Northwest Arkansas into a globally renowned arts ecosystem.

You sit down to go through a list of assets.

A vast and seemingly bottomless reservoir of wealth? Check. A flush family foundation where you serve as a board member? Check. A startlingly successful museum showcasing American art, innovative arts eduction programming and a performance venue slated to open in 2019? Check, check, check.

Still, you know that something's missing. And then it occurs to you: A world-class art school that plugs into this large and ever-growing ecosystem.

So once again, you wave your philanthropic magic wand to make something happen—something big

Recently, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation made a historic $120 million gift to the University of Arkansas (UA) to create the first and only art school in the state. UA's School of Art, to quote Margie Conrads, director of curatorial affairs for the museum, "beautifully aligns" with Walton's Crystal Bridges vision of access to and engagement with the arts.

The gift will also provide financial support for students in the form of scholarships, travel grants and internship opportunities, and expand graduate programs and degree offerings in art history, art education and graphic design.

Check.

Words like "historic" and "game changing" are bandied about quite a bit by university and foundation public relations departments. But in this case, it's no exaggeration. This gift is important on multiple levels. Let's start with the gift's less prominent but unsurprising source.

The "Other" Walton Foundation

As noted, the money came from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, not the Walton Family Foundation, which has been behind some big arts gift in the region as of late. Details are sketchy around the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, which has no web presence, but there are three things we do know about this entity, according to our earlier reporting.  

First, the foundation was set up mainly to support higher education in Arkansas. In 2002, the Walton family used the foundation as a vehicle to give UA $300 million, which at the time was the largest gift ever made to a public university. (Supporting community foundations is another focus, and the foundation has given tens of millions to the Arkansas Community Foundation in recent years.) Second—unsurprisingly—the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation is sitting on a big pile of money: over $600 million, as of 2015, according to the most recently available 990. Third, unlike the Walton Family Foundation, which only has family members on its board, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation's board includes a single Walton—Jim Walton.

A Gift Unprecedented in Scope

Now, consider how the gift fits in with the broader higher education space. Back in July, the Chronicle of Higher Education provided a list of higher ed gifts exceeding $100 million dating back to 1967. It includes recent blockbusters like the Heller Diller Foundation's $500 million to the University of San Francisco and Phil and Penny Knight's $500 million to the University of Oregon.

Both of those gifts were earmarked for the sciences—and that is precisely why the Walton gift is a striking anomaly. While collectors often donate a trove of valuable artwork to a school, higher ed mega-gifts, especially those exceeding $100 million, rarely flow to arts education.

Given the financial concerns facing public universities and the fact that the arts seem to be perennially on the chopping block, the Walton gift embeds "the study of art permanently in the university, and that's a big deal," said Noah Drezner, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who studies giving to colleges and universities.

But there's more.

A recent blog post in the Arkansas Times reveals that the agreement between the foundation and UA requires the school to increase its current budget for art from $3.2 million to $6.7 million a year by 2022. Together, the $110 million endowment—$10 million will go to the renovation of the existing Edward Durrell Fine Arts Centerand increased UA outlays will triple current annual spending in five years. The agreement stipulates that the Walton gift is not to replace existing funding.

Needless to say, the school's planners and the Walton family are looking far beyond the confines of northwest Arkansas. This "international hub for the study of art," according to Chancellor Joseph E. Steinmetz, is intended to have an "immediate, resounding positive effect on the culture of our entire state, and its imprint will be seen across the nation and beyond."

Connecting the Heartland to the World

Which brings me back to Alice Walton and her ambitious vision for a corner of America that many in the arts cognoscenti may still dismiss as "flyover" territory. The school, which will be housed in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts, will interface with her Crystal Bridges museum in nearby Bentonville by, among other things, placing a strong emphasis on American art and art of the Americas. Here's Steinmetz again:

The vision to create the School of Art could not have come to fruition without the cooperative, close and mutually beneficial relationship between the world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the university. With an emphasis on cross-disciplinary collaborations and signature outreach efforts with the museum, and a focus on student, faculty and staff diversity, the school will be uniquely positioned to develop programs to rival the top competitors in the field.

Alice Walton said: "the School of Art will shape a new generation of artists, historians, designers and teachers with a unique understanding of the hope art can bring to communities. The unparalleled access to meaningful American art will connect the heartland to the world."

But the gift isn't just about putting northwest Arkansas on equal footing with New York, Paris or Rome. From a curricular perspective, it adheres to the idea that the arts should be an integral component of a cross-disciplinary approach to college education.

Here's Alice again, on the Walton Family Foundation blog:

Art broadens our minds and expands our horizons—everyone’s horizons. It shifts our perspective and elevates our creativity. Every student can learn about art and apply creative thinking to excel in his or her chosen field of study. This will help develop not only inspiring artists but stronger business leaders, engineers and scientists, as well.

We've been hearing similar arguments lately from liberal arts champions pushing back against what just a few years ago seemed to be STEM's unstoppable march to dominance on college campuses. It turns out that plenty of people are horrified by this vision of higher education—including a growing list of donors who've stepped forward in recent years to bankroll the arts on campus with ever-larger gifts. But this Walton gift takes things to a whole new level.