Good for the Brand: Walton Arts Giving Stays the Course

News that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art awarded the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art its inaugural Don Tyson Prize, a $200,000 award for outstanding achievement in American art, illustrates branding and the extent to which this gift fits an emerging pattern around the Walton family's arts giving as of late.

Let's start with the branding part.

As loyal IP readers know, Alice Walton has emerged as a top arts philanthropist in recent years with the impressive Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas. And she has big plans for more to come. The museum recently announced it would transform an idled Kraft cheese plant into a space for contemporary art exhibitions, artists' projects, music, theater, and film.

The word "contemporary" is a relative term, especially given the contemporary art gold rush consuming the art world as of late. And so, as the museum takes shape, how "contemporary" will the museum truly be?

After all, this is a museum funded in part from the Walmart empire. If you did a branding survey, many Americans would utter adjectives like "low prices" and "easy shopping." (These are the ones safe to publish in a family newspaper.) Walmart, in other words, equals the American heartland and not, oh, "cutting edge art." What's more, commenting on the cheese factory, Alice's nephew Tom Walton said, "This project is going to be huge for the younger generation, the millennials." Will the museum push the needle too far, thereby potentially alienating a segment of its audience?  

Short answer? Not just yet. Walmart's gift is to the Smithsonian Institution. Its name is practically redundant. From a branding perspective, we're thinking of terms like "marbled columns," "the National Mall," and "cherry blossoms." 

The Don Tyson Prize, meanwhile, originally established as a part of the Tyson Scholars of American Art program created by the Tyson family and Tyson Foods, is an "unprecedented award," according to the museum's press release, recognizing significant achievements in the field of American art. A national jury of respected museum and academic art historians empaneled by Crystal Bridges selected the Archives of American Art for recognition, lauding the institution for advancing knowledge in the field of American art since its establishment in 1954.

"With more than 20 million items in its continually growing collections, the archives is the world’s largest and most widely used resource dedicated to collecting and preserving the papers and primary records of the visual arts in America,” said John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods. In 2012, Crystal Bridges received a $5 million endowment from the Tyson family and Tyson Foods, Inc., to establish the Tyson Scholars of American Art program and the Don Tyson Prize. The prize was recently endowed with an additional $5 million commitment from the Tyson family and Tyson Foods, Inc.

"We’re grateful to the Tyson family and Tyson Foods for their support of the mission and vision of Crystal Bridges, and their commitment to advancing the understanding of American art," said "America's Most Important Arts Philanthropist" Alice Walton, who chairs the museum's board of directors.

So let's summarize the main players here. The Walton Family and with it, Walmart riches. Tyson Foods, the multinational food giant. The Smithsonian institution. All that's missing is a warm apple pie cooling off in the window sill, the baby blue kitchen curtains blowing in the soft summer breeze, Rockwell-like.

Meanwhile, though, back in April, the Walton Family Foundation awarded a $10 million gift to a soon-to-be-revealed U.S. arts institution. Given the fact that a lion's share of the foundation's giving goes to education and environmental causes, it was a unique gift in terms of its recipient and its size.

The recipient was the National Gallery of Art, and the gift established the John Wilmerding Fund for Education in American Art to support internships, programs, and digital initiatives at the gallery. (The gallery is separate from the Smithsonian, but again, from a branding perspective, they're quite similar. And yes, the gallery has marble pillars.) At the time, we commented that:

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)."

Pass the (figurative) apple pie!