Home Is Where the Art Is

June 13, 2016

Bentonville, Arkansas, is the place my family calls home. Because of its natural beauty and quality of life, this small town has expanded over the years, joining with neighboring towns to become a vibrant region of more than 500,000 residents with a vital community of innovators.

Northwest Arkansas is a place that nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit. My father, Sam Walton, founded Walmart in Bentonville, and his contemporaries, Don Tyson of Tyson Foods, J.B. and Johnelle Hunt of JB Hunt Transport, and other business leaders in the area have worked together to improve and sustain transportation, health care, education, and cultural opportunities in the region.

As a collector and lifelong student of art, I had personally experienced the transformational power of art and felt confident that a museum would make a meaningful impact on the quality of life in our region. Through art, I learned the story of America in a way that resonated more deeply than any history class. I felt compelled to share these stories with our communities in the heartland of America. In 2000, I began discussing with my family the merits of building a museum of American art in Bentonville. 

Over the course of a decade, the Walton Family Foundation gifted 120 acres of family land to create the museum’s site, funded the construction, and began developing the permanent collection—which included the gift of much of my personal collection. Prior to opening, we announced that the Foundation would also fund endowments for the purchase of art, operating costs, and long-term maintenance. Believing it to be in the best long-term interest of the museum to operate as a public charity, we encouraged members of the community to participate with their financial and volunteer support.  And they have. Today we have robust membership, sponsorship, and endowment programs, as well as a corps of more than 800 dedicated volunteers. 

In the first year after Crystal Bridges opened to the public—in November, 2011—we welcomed more than 650,000 visitors.  And that number has grown to more than 2.3 million guests in just over four years. The true mark of success, however, is the fact that 50% or more of our guests each month are repeat visitors:  regulars at the museum who make Crystal Bridges an integral part of their lives.  In fact, a recent survey of our community members indicates that 63% of Northwest Arkansas residents had visited the museum at least once in the last 12 months.

While I knew a museum would have a positive impact in our community, I underestimated how great an impact it would have on individuals.  I am deeply moved by the heartfelt responses of museum guests regarding their experiences with artworks that had been part of my personal collection. Seeing these works that I had so enjoyed over the years become favorites of thousands, the subject of study by scholars, and the inspiration for countless others affirms my belief that our gift is indeed transforming the quality of life for people living in Northwest Arkansas and beyond.