Wednesday, June 13, 2007

WalMarting a museum for Arkansas

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.

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

But 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 leftwing and rightwing 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!

Update: Nikolas Schiller reacts to my thoughts with some really good points of his own. Read them here.