Walmart Gallery In Cross Fire Controversy

New $1.4bn gallery opened by Walmart heiress in rural Arkansas accused of appropriating nation’s art, and surrounded by controversy as the supermarket cuts back benefits for workforce

Alice Walton – heiress to the Walmart supermarket fortune and the 10th richest woman in the US – has just opened the much-anticipated Crystal Bridges Museum for American Art in her home town of Bentonville, Arkansas. But the media praise for the museum and the high-quality artwork on display has been marred by controversy, with many seeing hypocrisy in Walton’s $1.4 billion spend simultaneous to Walmart’s cutting back workers’ benefits.

Protesters have voiced their solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests currently sweeping the US, in a move that suggests strengthening ties between the Occupy movement and established trade unions. A spokesman for the union-affiliated MakingChange@Walmart explained how ‘opening a huge, opulent museum in the middle of nowhere while the company is cutting health insurance for its employees is troubling. It sends the message Wal-Mart doesn’t care about them.’

But workers benefits are not the only area of concern, with a number of figures in the artworld condemning the museum’s collecting conduct, accusing it of inflating values and draining masterpieces from the major but impoverished art institutions. The rural museum features a survey of American art, including works by Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol, and some argue that Walton, through sheer financial clout, is forcibly appropriating the nation’s masterpieces without discussion.

Curator David Houston defends the museum against such accusations by the fact that ‘We set market records for very few pieces that we purchased’, while simultaneously condemning the ‘east coast elite’ in their belief that ‘bringing a famous painting like Thomas Eakins’s [$68m] Gross Clinic to Arkansas is itself an act of cultural vandalism’. Houston puts the complaints down to an east coast unwilling to relinquish cultural control: ‘We’re bringing art to the public, but it’s a different kind of public, and there are social and political connotations to that’. He applauds the Waltons in their goal ‘to create a tremendous cultural resource in this part of the world’ – ‘Their intent is not to create a shrine to an individual or even a family’, he assures us.

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