Alice Walton is fretting about cheap flights. Not for herself, of course; the Walmart heiress takes a Gulfstream jet to meetings. Her concerns are purely professional. Slight and silver-haired, Walton stands in the lobby of her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art addressing a gauntlet of staff assembled to greet her one sweaty July afternoon. “We need discount carriers!” she says, raising her voice and one fist in mock outrage, tempered with a grin. For all the fanfare of its 2011 opening, its stunning verdant setting and an art collection worth upwards of $500 million, Crystal Bridges is still in Bentonville, Ark., Walton’s –and Walmart’s — hometown, but hardly a tourist hub.
If Alice Walton, 63, wants something, she’ll probably get it. A decade ago Walton was a modest collector who, in one of her regular visits to her consigliere and Princeton art historian John Wilmerding, took out a map of the U.S. “She had drawn circles in pen of every major art museum. It was obvious visually there was this empty space for around 300 miles,” says Wilmerding. Over the past eight years she’s built a 200,000-square-foot museum from scratch in a rocky ravine in the Ozarks and filled it with Warhols, Rothkos and Pollocks as well as pricey gems from lesser-known artists.
It’s almost unprecedented to amass such an impressive set of work in such a short period of time. Walton, however, is the wealthiest person ever to catch the art bug. She’s the second-richest woman in America (sister-in-law Christy is worth a bit more), with a fortune of $33.5 billion derived almost entirely from shares in her late father Sam Walton’s retail behemoth. As if those resources don’t suffice, the tax-minimizing Walton Family Foundation put another $1.2 billion into Crystal Bridges, and Walmart’s $20 million sponsorship means admission is free.
ArtNews recently added Walton to its list of the world’s ten most important collectors, alongside billionaire auction mainstays like hedge funder Steve Cohen and banker Leon Black. “She’s obviously spending a lot of money, and fast,” says ArtNews publisher Milton Esterow. It’s a statement to the art world. And it’s also a statement about Alice Walton herself.
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