Sunday, December 16, 2012

Alice’s Wonderland - NewYorker Magazine

 Alice’s Wonderland
 A Walmart heiress builds a museum in the Ozarks.
 by Rebecca Mead June 27, 2011 .

"On the morning of December 1, 2004, Sotheby’s offered at auction one of the last great private troves of American art. Daniel Fraad, who died in 1987, made his fortune supplying fuel to airlines; in the late forties, he and his wife, Rita, began amassing American paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including works by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper. When the Fraads started buying, their taste was not especially fashionable—French art was more in vogue—but by the time of Rita Fraad’s death, in May, 2004, American art was highly sought after, and the seventy-eight works on the block at Sotheby’s were estimated to be worth between thirty million and forty-five million dollars.

The sale got under way at a quarter past ten, and
the first lot, a portrait by the naturalist painter Gari Melchers, sold to a telephone bidder for more than nine hundred thousand dollars, seven times what was expected. The sixth lot, “The Little White House,” a 1919 landscape by Willard Metcalf, sold for just over a million dollars—nearly three times its estimate, and also to a buyer on the phone. As a reporter for Maine Antique Digest noted, “People began to wonder: with almost every collector one could think of present in the room, who the heck could be on the phone?”

One of the phone bidders that day was a collector whose activities had thus far gone largely unnoticed by the art world: Alice Walton, the daughter of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, who died in 1992. The youngest of Walton’s four children, Alice, who was born in 1949 and grew up in Bentonville, Arkansas, was a member of the richest family in America. The Waltons were worth some ninety billion dollars at the time—as much as the fortunes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined. Alice had started buying art in the seventies, mostly watercolors by American artists, but by the late nineties she had become a more serious collector; she hung the works on the walls of her ranch outside of Fort Worth, where she raised, bred, and rode cutting horses, which are trained to work with cattle. In fact, as the auction got under way in New York, Walton was at the Will Rogers Coliseum, in Fort Worth, preparing to compete in the first qualifying round of the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity.
So it was from the saddle of a three-year-old gelding named IC Lad that Walton successfully bid for several lots from the Fraad collection: “Spring,” a gorgeous watercolor of a rural scene, by Winslow Homer; “A French Music Hall,” by Everett Shinn, the Ashcan School artist; and “The Studio,” by George Bellows, which depicts the artist at work with his children playing at his feet. Collectively, these works cost Walton more than twelve million dollars. She competed with IC Lad before lunchtime—they were in the third round, fourth horse—then returned to making bids during the afternoon session at Sotheby’s. From the collection of Pierre Bergé, the co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, she bought several notable works, including “The Indian and the Lily”—an exquisite rendering of a muscular Native American, by George de Forest Brush—and “October Interior,” a sunny, celadon-hued painting of a domestic scene, by Fairfield Porter.

By the end of the day, Walton had spent more than twenty million dollars on art. She had also prevailed at the Will Rogers Coliseum, placing sixty-second out of three hundred and seventy-four entrants, which allowed her to advance to the next round. Indeed, she made it all the way to the finals, which took place on December 10th. Walton came in nineteenth out of twenty riders—not a spectacular result but one that came with a prize of nearly thirteen thousand dollars.
“There is a lot that horses and art share in common,” Walton told me one morning not long ago, when I visited her in Bentonville, which is in the Ozarks, near the Missouri border, and is where Walmart has its headquarters. “I have found that most horse people are art lovers, and vice versa,” she went on. “I think it is more of an intuitive, circular kind of personality, for starters. And, as I say of horses, the secret to breeding great horses is the three ‘B’s: bones, brains, and balance. If you look at art, it shares some of the same qualities.”
Walton does not have the expensively curated look of a Park Avenue matron: her face is tanned and weather-beaten, and shows no signs of having been submitted to the surgeon’s knife. She wears her steel-gray hair pulled back in a straggly bun. For a very rich person, she lives relatively modestly: the house on her ranch in Texas, where she spends most of her time, is a simple one-story affair, apart from the masterpieces that have hung on its walls; when guests visit, she cooks dinner herself, though she has help to do the cleaning up. She speaks with a broad Arkansas accent—Bill Clinton at his most down home—and when she talks about her museum project she avoids loftiness. “One of the great responsibilities that I have is to manage my assets wisely, so that they create value,” she told me. “I know the price of lettuce. You need to understand price and value. You buy the best lettuce you can at the best price you can.”
As Walton spoke, we were in the boardroom of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is being built in Bentonville to house Walton’s acquisitions in perpetuity. After four years of construction, Crystal Bridges is scheduled to open in November. Looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows, we could see that a large pit had been dug in the red soil several stories below us. Half a dozen cranes and other pieces of heavy machinery were active at the site, transporting hardware and pumping water from the pit—Bentonville had recently suffered almost two straight weeks of rain. Dozens of construction workers had been toiling since dawn. The pit was flanked by two lozenge-shaped bridge structures, each with a convex ribbed roof, which museum employees liken to the shell of an armadillo. One armadillo was to house two galleries; that morning, glass panels were being carefully inserted into the structure. The other armadillo was to be a restaurant. Eventually, the area between them would be a reflecting pond, filled with creek water. On the far end of the pit was another gallery space, a curvilinear concrete structure with a concave roof. In the end, eight pavilions, made from concrete and inlaid with wood, would be linked by bridges and walkways that offered visitors views of the trees and the water—breathing spaces from looking at art. The site was wedged in a tight ravine, and hemmed in by dense woodland: a two-hundred-thousand-square-foot cultural palace-to-be, nestled beneath the tree line. This would not be a triumphal acropolis, like the Getty Center, in Los Angeles. Crystal Bridges aimed to complement its natural setting, rather than crown it."
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