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Wal-Marting a Museum for Arkansas

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Lately, with a rare exception here and there, it has become very fashionable among art writers, bloggers and critics to demonize the efforts of Alice Walton’s no nonsense, robber-baroness approach to give the people of Bentonville, Arkansas a world class collection of art.

Regardless of how one feels about Ms. Walton’s wealth (she’s the 20th richest person on the planet) and approach to buying art, Bentonville (population: 29,538) is not a place in which many people live, much less visit, and practically no one in the art world cares about it.

But needless to say, flyover states deserve a look at America’s art historical tradition, too.

Other than an infectious and personal dislike by these writers for Ms. Walton’s approach, the barely hidden implication in their written words is that metropolitan areas like Seattle, Washington, Forth Worth, Texas, and St. Louis, Missouri — places that people will visit — are more natural and deserving destinations for high art for our public American masses outside of New York.

This is elitist nonsense on a major scale.

There are very few places left in this nation where the reach of internationalism doesn’t touch. Early last year I was gallivanting all around the nation, and one of the places that I visited (for the first time in my case) was Arkansas. It’s rural OK, but it’s not what urbanites visualize.

Bentonville’s next door neighbor, Fayetteville (population around 67,000) is the home to the 420-acre campus of the University of Arkansas (the only comprehensive, doctoral degree-granting institution in the state). Their enrollment has more than 14,600 students (more than 12,000 in undergraduate programs) and a diverse student population with 650 international students representing 86 countries.

And this place is rated by Money magazine as one of the top ten most desirable places in the nation in which to live or work.

There are several other towns in the area. Springdale is one where the impact of Wal-Mart is amazing to see — luxury retailers and gargantuan homes; a real population and cultural explosion is happening there.

It doesn’t take a futurist to predict that this area will see a major urban growth in the next few decades, and when it does, it will be grateful to the vision of Alice Walton, which is perhaps a throwback to that of the moneyed folks who a century earlier built the collections that she now shops from.

And so I think that I will step aside from the rest of the art lemmings and applaud Ms. Walton’s Soviet-style approach to art politics in her effort to give the folks of Arkansas a world class collection of art.

Not only because she has billions of dollars to do so, but also because I think that she sees the location of this museum as something positive for an America that although politicians (and both left-wing and right-wing nuts) are often quoting as underserved Americans, they all perceive as a backwater populated by people who don’t care about art.

And yet, I hope that no one will disagree in that this coming exposure of the fine arts to this hard-working, modest segment of our population, who haven’t generally had the opportunity to have it so close at hand, will be a good thing.

This is something to be applauded.

You go Alice Walton!

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About Lenny Campello

  • I’m not sure what bothers me the most, a rosey picturesque rendering of a 58 year old heiress to the WAL-MART empire – saving middle America from cultural and intellectual depravity or the naive assumption that like love, art will conquer all – “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
    Romantic isn’t it, yep, stuff of fantasy.

    The new slogan should be “Art for Ark” and so I ask, how does someone with an estimated 6 billion dollars plus in net worth become an expert in American art? Is there some connection between wealth and savoir faire, between making billions off the sweat of over-worked and under-payed Chinese labor, living in squalor and slums that even WE wouldn’t tolerate here in the U.S., between the demise of small business all across this land due to the un-restrained money bullying expansion of WAL-MART stores? Is there? I imagine so. But hey, we’re saving middle America, thanks to WAL-MART we’re amazed to see luxury retailers and gargantuan homes; a real population and cultural explosion. This cultural explosion, luxury retailers et al are not contributing to the betterment of the community but are out-distancing an already strapped lower to middle class population that has no chance of obtaining these luxuries you speak of. At $6.25 an hour, it’s difficult for anyone to raise a family, go luxury shopping or by a gargantuan home.

    But let us forget for a moment the discrepancy between 6 billion and 6.25 an hour, let’s talk about what WAL-MART represents or symbolizes in American culture – yep, low cost and affordable. WAL-MART has taken up the role of any early 19th or 20th century industrial or mining town that provided housing for its employees, a local company store, and a local company tavern, assuring what is made in this town stays in this town – get paid on Friday, already spent by Saturday. This is not providing a solution to the problem but is only assuring a steady flow of “loyal” customers with no where else to shop. They simply don’t have the choice.

    And choice is at the heart of the problem. Choice whether in art or consummable goods already implies a certain cultural diversity and selection, a cultural history, a reference to tradition, beliefs and points of view different from the enforced standardizing of goods – cheap, dispensable, poor quality – that WAL-MART offers as a substitute to pacify the masses. You’ll buy what we give you. The effect is the dumbing down of consumer expectations and desires.

    This dumbing down, this milk toast choice of goods and services renders the buyer blase, un-aware, un-interested and does nothing to stimulate the buyer’s intellect, sensibility or interest – you are what you shop. It’s really not their fault. So I too, will step aside from the rest of the art lemmings and ask how with such a WAL-MART mentality firmly in place, how do you expect “Crystal Bridges” (Alice Walton’s surnamed museum) to be any better?

    Oh yes I remember, you hoped we would not disagree that this coming exposure of the fine arts to this hard-working, modest segment of our population, who haven’t generally had the opportunity to have it so close at hand, will be a good thing. A good thing? How so? Before you purport to enrich the lives of that modest segment of our population through art, you need to give them the opportunity to enrich themselves personally. Art will never be nor has it ever been a savior for the social or economic ills of it’s population. With rare occasion has art been politically successful, but alas, the “October Revolution” ended over a century ago, the Berlin Wall came down a couple of decades ago and so this leaves us with the only revolution NOT worth fighting for, the expansion of WAL-MART into every nook and cranny of our daily lives.

    PS: here is the disclaimer on the Crystal Bridges website, found in the FAQ section, Q. How is Crystal Bridges tied to WAL-MART? A. It isn’t. Crystal Bridges is a non-profit organization focused solely on creating a world class museum and cultural center for the benefit of the public. Because of Alice Walton’s extraordinary vision for Crystal Bridges and the museum’s emphasis on education and culture, the Walton Family Foundation has provided significant funding to help make the dream of Crystal Bridges a reality. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., is in no way connected to the development, construction or planning of the museum or the development and ownership of the permanent collection.

    Uh…? am I missing something here?