"Paradigm-Shifting." How Alice Walton Is Taking Her Vision of Art Access Nationwide

 art in museum storage. photo:  www.hollandfoto.net/shutterstock

art in museum storage. photo:  www.hollandfoto.net/shutterstock

In the five-plus years since the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened its doors, Alice Walton has seemed mostly concerned with building a vibrant arts ecosystem in northwest Arkansas. If that's the case, she's been wildly successful.

The region now enjoys free admission to the museum, access to world-class art and innovative educational programming, and the prospect of the first and only art school in the state, made possible by a recent $120 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

Her museum has also made forays into grantmaking, strengthened partnerships with other foundations and institutions focused on American art, and invested in a new performance venue slated to open in 2019.

Walton has crammed more into five years than most philanthropists do in a lifetime.

But let's be honest. With a net worth of roughly $40 billion and a passion for the arts, Walton's vision of boosting access was never confined to Northwest Arkansas. And having established Crystal Bridges as a conceptional and strategic platform, it appears she's now taking her vision nationwide.

Walton has established Art Bridges, a new nonprofit foundation to focus on "sharing American art across the country through collaborations with museums and institutions." By assembling a collection and loaning out work to museums across the country, Art Bridges attempts to solve one of the biggest problems in the modern art world: the lack of access to world-class art.

"Let's Make Art Available to Everyone"

Commenting on the formation of Art Bridges, Walton laid out the facts: "Outstanding artworks are in museum vaults and private collections. Let’s make that art available to everyone, and provide a way to experience these cultural treasures."

Walton's quote speaks to an acute challenge in the art world. "We’ve got so much art in storage," said billionaire J. Tomilson Hill last year. In 2013, Guess co-founder Maurice Marciano said, "A lot of art we have in storage, which is not the best thing at all, definitely not what you want."

This explains why Hill, Marciano, and other collectors start their own private museums. It's also why established museums turn down donations of work: They simply don't have the space. The most obvious solution is to build new wings, but these things take time, and besides, risky capital projects have their own set of challenges.

Art Bridges kills two birds with one stone.

First, museums with work in storage will have an incentive to dust them off, send them on the road, slap their name on the exhibition, and find satisfaction in knowing the public gets to see them—all without committing to a costly capital project. Second, visitors to museums off the beaten path will have access to world-class collections from major institutions.

By making "works of art accessible to audiences in museums that might not have access," Terra Foundation for American Art CEO Elizabeth Glassman calls Art Bridges' charter "paradigm shifting."

In a philanthropy world that finds donors fervently committed to boosting engagement and combatting inequality, who would have predicted one of its biggest proponents would be a Walmart heiress?

Integrating with Crystal Bridges

Back in 2014, when Walton was ramping up her arts philanthropy, David Callahan opined, "If Alice Walton intends to engage in more ambitious philanthropy around the arts, Crystal Bridges would be an obvious platform to build on." This prediction has come to pass.

Commenting on Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation's massive gift to the University of Arkansas's School of Art earlier this year, Curatorial Affairs Director Margie Conrads said the new school "beautifully aligns" with Crystal Bridges' vision of access to and engagement with the arts.

And while Art Bridges' collection will be distinct from Crystal Bridges' permanent collection, there will nonetheless be close collaboration between Walton's two entities. Art Bridges has already contracted with Crystal Bridges to provide administrative, collection care, education and outreach and curatorial expertise for projects.

Key to Art Bridge's mission is its ability to leverage Crystal Bridges' relationships with other institutions and foundations. For example, Crystal Bridges' American Encounters collaboration works with the Louvre, Atlanta's High Museum of Art, and Glassman's Terra Foundation to broaden the "appreciation for and dialogue about American art, both within the U.S. and abroad."

Terra has also signed on with Art Bridges on a six-year initiative designed to develop and nurture collection-sharing networks. Terra Art Bridges will "provide funding to institutions across the country to aid partnerships that will span several years, giving museums of different sizes a chance to more closely work together on projects."

Today, Bentonville; Tomorrow, America

Art Bridges is legally separate from Crystal Bridges, but it is nonetheless aligned with Walton's mission of exporting access to American art. Walton is arguably the only arts philanthropist with the resources, infrastructure, and partnerships to tackle such an ambitious endeavor, and without Crystal Bridges, it probably wouldn't have been possible.

"The beauty of Crystal Bridges is that you were able to—through Alice's vision—bring these amazing artworks to this area of the country that doesn't really have access," said American Federation of Arts Director Pauline Willis.

Ah yes, "access." There's that word again.

In my recent post reflecting on Crystal Bridge's five-year anniversary, the word seemed to jump off the screen. "I grew up here and didn’t have access to art, and I knew we wanted to change that," Walton said. "What I underestimated was how much people wanted to have access to that great art."

Fast-forward to Walton's unveiling of Art Bridges. "We want to support partner institutions in expanding and deepening their connection with audiences," Walton said in a statement. "This is about engaging communities through providing access and learning opportunities."

For all the talk about Walton's audacious and controversial plans for building an arts ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas, at the end of the day, her paramount vision, so vividly reflected in Crystal Bridges and her new foundation, can be summed up with that one simple word: access.