All In the (Walton) Family: What's Behind Their Big (and Possibly Portentous) Arts Give?

The recent news that Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas plans to transform an idled Kraft cheese plant into a space for contemporary art exhibitions, artists' projects, music, theater, and film was important for a few reasons.

First, it signaled that Walton—dubbed by certain commentators as America's "Most Important Arts Philanthropist"—was doubling down on her cherished museum. It also was a somewhat risky move. Huge capital projects, particularly in off-the-beaten-path locations can incur serious downstream costs. And the museum's target demographic, the millennials, is a curious one. These youngsters, we're told, aren't really into the arts.

Now comes some more interesting news related to the Walton family and arts. 

The National Gallery of Art announced recently that the Walton Family Foundation has gifted the institution $10 million in honor of American art scholar and museum professional John Wilmerding.

According to the gallery, Wilmerding, a curator, deputy director and trustee at the museum, is a renowned scholar and author who influenced generations of scholars and curators. The gift will establish the John Wilmerding Fund for Education in American Art and will support internships, programs, and digiRemovetal initiatives at the gallery. Some of the programs funded by the gift may extend beyond American art, but it will "always be a focus," said Lynn Russell, head of education.

A couple of takeaways here.

First, the gift represents a nice juxtaposition with Alice Walton's project in Bentonville. As we noted when when Crystal Bridges first began to, well, crystallize, "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." In other words, we correctly predicted that Crystal Bridges would be an ideal platform upon which Walton could expand her arts philanthropy.

Her family foundation's gift to the National Gallery of Art, meanwhile, is quite obviously another beast entirely. It's a classic case study in scholarship-based arts philanthropy to an existing and esteemed institution, far different than the highly controversial Crystal Bridges endeavor. What's more, while Alice dreams big—her project, after all, aims to economically transform an entire region of a state—the foundation started by her parents remains committed to more conservative (and we certainly don't mean that in a pejorative sense) philanthropic causes.

Although perhaps "committed" isn't the right word. Scan IP's archives and you'll find most of the Walton Family Foundation coverage centers on educational and environmental causes. This isn't an accident. Go to the foundation's website and you'll read the following:

We're committed to awarding grants that will drive transformative change for people and communities in three areas of focus: investing to improve K-12 education, helping environments thrive and communities prosper, and giving back to our home region (of northwest Arkansas).

No mention of the arts, in other words.

In fact, take a look at their 2014 giving. The largest areas of support, in order, are K-12 Education ($202 million), Environment ($101 million), and Home Region ($40,000). Arts-related gifts fall under a fourth category, Special Interests ($29 million).

Sift through the data in the latter category and you'll see a little over a dozen gifts to museums and arts organizations, with grant amounts ranging from $10,000 to $350,000, which in this case went to the Colorado Museum of Natural History. 

Bottom line? Proportionately speaking, their non-Bentonville arts giving is a subset of a subset, thereby rendering the size of the gift to the D.C.-based National Gallery of Art a subtle, but nonetheless intriguing development.

The foundation, of course, is a huge financial backer of the Bentonville Crystal Bridges project. And when mean huge, we mean—to quote a certain presidential candidate—yuuuuuge. As previously noted:

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.

Which brings us to our final point. The gift to the gallery may seem like a traditional arts gift—and for all intents and purposes, it certainly is—but further introspection reveals why the foundation honed in specifically on John Wilmerding's legacy. It's because Wilmerding's work dovetails nicely with the foundation's celebration of American art (a theme, not coincidentally, that is also central to the Crystal Bridges project, which aims to celebrates American art in the heartland).

The National Gallery of Art certainly doesn't have a monopoly on scholars or collections that celebrate America's artistic heritage. Therefore, the big question mark moving forward is if the gift to the gallery, while certainly intriguing, also represents a portentous development.