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Walmart builds the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — As an heir to the Walmart fortune, Alice Walton had the means to buy almost any piece of art on the market. So she scooped up one masterpiece after another: an iconic portrait of George Washington, romantic landscapes from the 19th century, a Norman Rockwell classic.

She amassed an enviable collection of treasures spanning most of American history, and now it's on display in an unlikely place, a wooded ravine in a small city in northwest Arkansas.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is regarded as the nation's most important new art museum in a generation, offering exhibits more commonly found in New York or Los Angeles. But this hall of paintings took shape in Bentonville, a community of 35,000 people best known as Walmart's headquarters.

Walton's collection provided a "sort of instant museum," said Henry Adams, an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "You usually don't have a museum that appears out of nowhere," said Adams, who ranked the new place "somewhere between the top and the middle" of American museums.

When the museum opened Nov. 11, many of the paintings were on public display for the first time because Walton bought them from private collections.

In the case of public art, Walton's acquisition efforts drew howls from some art lovers and critics on the East Coast, who bemoaned the notion that cherished works were being commandeered for display in an Ozark mountain town.

But experts say that story has been told before.

"Think of how the owners of the great collections in Europe and England must have felt at the beginning of the 20th century, when a lot of their art was coming into this country," said David M. Sokol, art history professor emeritus of the University of Chicago.

At the time, industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie used their fortunes to acquire fine art from wealthy Europeans, many of whom sold their paintings to sustain lavish lifestyles.

Much of the art has deep ties to the region. The collection includes works by painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton, grandnephew of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the strident advocate of Manifest Destiny for whom Bentonville was named in the 1830s.

Walton was an art collector long before she proposed opening a museum, and she started buying specifically for the project in 2005. Her plan was to create something important for her hometown. Walton, 62, is the youngest of Walmart founder Sam Walton's four children. She's listed by Forbes magazine as the 10th wealthiest American, with a fortune of $20.9 billion.

Crystal Bridges has about 440 works on display. About 800 more are in storage, available to freshen the permanent collection, to put in special exhibitions or to be loaned.

Visitors first encounter portraits of Revolutionary War figures in the colonial-era gallery, then move on to renderings of early settlers and Indians, followed by paintings from the Civil War period. Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter from World War II is also there, as are paintings that reflect the civil rights era.

For out-of-state visitors, the trip won't be short or simple. Bentonville is a two-hour drive from the nearest major airport in Tulsa, though the nearby and growing Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport is just a few miles from town.

Walmart builds the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]
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