Friday, December 20, 2013

Wal-Mart heiress uses fortune to build awe-inspiring art gallery in Arkansas

By Pat Brennan

Wal-Mart heiress uses fortune to build awe-inspiring art gallery in Arkansas

Visitors admire the painting of Rosie the Riveter.

Photograph by: Pat Brennan , For Postmedia News

Alice Walton was running out of wall space in her various mansions to hang her favourite pieces of art, so she hired Montreal architect Moshe Safdie to design an art gallery on her old childhood playground.

Safdie’s $350 million creation - Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art - opened in the fall of 2011 to worldwide raves. It stretches across a small river running through a wooded valley in Bentonville, Arkansas - population 35,000 - and has already elbowed its way on to the list of the world’s most impressive art galleries.

And Alice Walton, the youngest of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s four children, has filled its bright, spacious halls with, what art critics claim, is the world’s finest collection of American art.

You won’t have to cash in your collection of empty beer cans to see Alice’s collection.  Admission is free to Crystal Bridges.

Having $22 billion in the bank and being America’s 9th wealthiest person permits such generous gestures.

Crystal Bridges derives its name from the gallery’s two pavilions of exposed wood and glass strung across two ponds created by the stream that runs through the treed valley. Alice played in this valley as a child while her dad ran his five-and-dime store on the town’s square and dreamt of bigger things.

The art gallery blends unobtrusively into the valley’s nature.

Safdie has designed famous buildings around the world.  In Canada his draughting table gave life to Habitat 67, the revolutionary Montreal apartment complex sitting on the St. Lawrence River and unveiled for Expo 67.  The National Gallery of Canada, one of Ottawa’s most beautiful buildings, is a Safdie creation. In Toronto, terminal one at Pearson International Airport was designed by Safdie, so too is the 45-stotrey Pantages Tower, a condominium and hotel on Victoria St. at Shuter St.  Another Safdie condo tower is under construction by Great Gulf Homes on Lower Sherbourne St. at Queen’s Quay on the Toronto waterfront.

You’ll recognize many of the famous paintings as you wander through Crystal Bridges – such as Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Rosie The Riveter” for which Alice paid $4.9 million, or George Washington sitting for his Gilbert Stuart portrait in 1796. She paid $8.1 million for that piece and $35 million for “Kindred Spirits,” an 1849 painting by Asher Durand. New York City aficionados were stunned when New York Public Library sold its prized possession at auction to buy more books. Dolly Parton attended the museum’s grand opening to see Andy Warhol’s painting of her adorned with large earrings.

Another Walton museum you should visit in Bentonville is the back room of Sam Walton’s original store on the town’s main square. That store has grown to more than 8,500 Wal-Mart stores with annual sales of nearly $500 billion.

He was America’s richest man when he died at age 74 in 1992. The museum contains Sam’s simple office, plus the vehicle he drove everyday – a 17-year-old Ford pick up.


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