Fact Check: Did Alice Walton Really Build Crystal Bridges Museum?

Note: The information in this post is based largely on a report released today by The Walmart1Percent.[i]

Myth: Alice Walton is a generous philanthropist who built the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art.

Fact: Alice Walton did not make a single personal contribution to the Walton Family Foundation (which did make contributions to the museum) during the 23 years reviewed by The Walmart1Percent.[ii]
Fact: Alice has contributed less than two days’ worth of her Walmart dividends to the Museum.[iv]
Fact: Alice’s personal financial contributions to Crystal Bridges come to about $2.6 million, which amounts to just .16% of all contributions to the Museum through 2012.[iii]

Alice, the youngest Walton sibling, is a lover of horses and art, and she is widely credited with leading the decade-long effort to build the stunning, billion-dollar Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2011.

Source: The New Yorker

Source: The New Yorker

The fact that Crystal Bridges purportedly represents a realization of Alice’s personal vision has led many observers to call it “her” museum; and it is generally assumed that Alice sunk a lot of money into the project.

A 2011 New York Times story on Ms. Walton’s effort may have contributed to this impression:

“Ms. Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, turned to buying art specifically for the museum in 2005, resulting in a spending spree that has made her a recognized force in the art market. She has been one of those mysterious anonymous buyers at auctions and at galleries who often pay top dollar and has spent many tens of millions of dollars…” on major American artworks.[v]

Alice’s own website does not make any effort to challenge the picture of generosity painted by such stories. AliceWalton.Org reports extensively on the accolades Alice has received, including an honorary degree bestowed by the University of Arkansas in recognition of her “many charitable acts, including the founding of Crystal Bridges.”[vi]

Our analysis of the museum’s annual tax returns (IRS Form 990-PF) indicates that a reality check is in order: Alice Walton may have picked out a lot of the artwork for the museum (with assistance from top-flight experts), but she did not pay for much of it, or much of anything else.[vii]

The Walton Family Foundation – has been responsible for about 83 percent of all contributions to Crystal Bridges so far – that’s $1.3 billion as of 2012, including $137 million worth of art that was likely selected by Alice. But Alice did not make a single personal contribution to the Walton Family Foundation during the 23 years we analyzed. And Alice’s personal financial contributions to Crystal Bridges have been modest – about $2.6 Million (and most of that did not come until 2012). That’s a lot of money to most of us, but it’s less than two days’ worth of Walmart dividends for Alice[viii] and about .16% of all contributions to the museum through 2012.[ix]

But that’s not all.

A 2010 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette revealed that members of the Walton family and associates who help to manage the Waltons’ business affairs were investors in Bentonville-area development projects expected to benefit from the economic impact of Crystal Bridges.[x]

And then there’s the tax break that Crystal Bridges wrangled from the state of Arkansas under questionable pretenses.[xi] The Waltons used their enormous political power in Arkansas to secure tax subsidies for Crystal Bridges through a 2005 state law exempting the museum from state sales and use taxes.

The legislation was clearly intended to apply exclusively to the Waltons’ Crystal Bridges museum. In order to qualify for the tax breaks, a museum had to open by January 1, 2013, had to cost more than $30 million to build, and house more than $100 million worth of art. This was clearly a bill custom written for Crystal Bridges.[xii] Arkansas happened to be facing substantial budget shortfalls during the time the tax break was debated.[xiii]  Proponents said it was necessary in order to ensure that the Walton family didn’t choose to locate Crystal Bridges elsewhere.[xiv]

Since the bill was enacted, however, Alice Walton has made it clear that she never considered locating anywhere but Arkansas, In fact, she laughs at the idea.” [xv]

Meanwhile, estimates of the revenue lost to the state have run as high as $15 million.[xvi]  Actual losses could be even higher, given that construction and art acquisition costs both increased significantly.

At $1.3 billion, the Walton Family Foundation’s contributions to Crystal Bridges represent a very large portion of its total charitable contributions. Whatever one thinks about the societal value of the museum (and there has been some acrimonious public debate about the virtues of the project)[xvii] $1.3 billion seems like a very large chunk of the foundation’s resources going to fulfill the personal dream of family member Alice Walton.[xviii]


Arkansas journalist reveals that Alice bids on artwork while on horseback

Source: 360West

Source: 360West

But Walton revealed during the Oct. 24 media tour of the museum that she doesn’t attend the auctions and hasn’t ever bid in person at one.

“I never have,” she declared.

Because the major auctions in New York tend to coincide with her cutting-horse world championships — she lives on a Texas ranch and competes in riding competitions — she has been known to phone in bids while sitting astride a saddle.

“I’m not really given a lot of choice if I want to compete,” she said with a throaty laugh.

Source: “Walton Inflames East With Collection,” Arkansas Online (November 5, 2011). http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2011/nov/05/walton-inflames-east-collection/?print

Photo:  Gail Bennison, “Alice,” 360 West (January 2013). http://www.bluetoad.com/publication/?i=140344&p=48



[i] “The Phony Philanthropy of the Walmart Heirs: How the Richest Family in America Uses Their Family Foundation to Mislead Americans and Increase Their Wealth,” Walmart1Percent.Org (June 2014). http://walmart1percent.org/phonyphilanthropy

[ii] Ibid

[iii] See Endnote 1

[iv] See Endnote 1

[v] Carol Vogel, “A Billionaire’s Eye for Art Shapes Her Singular Museum,” The New York Times, (June 16, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/17/arts/design/alice-walton-on-her-crystal-bridges-museum-of-american-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[vi] “Alice Walton, Chairman of the Board,  Crystal Bridges – Museum of American Art” (Retrieved May 23, 2014).  http://alicewalton.org/

[vii] The museum is operated by a private, non-profit foundation (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Inc.), of which Alice Walton is chairman. The findings presented here are based on an analysis of the foundation’s annual tax returns (IRS Form 990-PF) for the years 2004 through 2012.

[viii] Based on our estimate of Alice’s share of the Walmart dividends paid to Rob, Jim, Alice and Christy individually, and through their interest in the family holding company, Walton Enterprises, LLC. Our calculation is based on Walton family share ownership reported on Walmart’s 2014 Proxy Statement (SEC Form DEF 14A) available from: http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/104169/000130817914000196/lwmt2014_def14a.htm; and Walmart’s declared FY 2015 dividend of $1.92 per share. For the dividend declaration, see: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., “Walmart raises annual dividend to $1.92 per share, representing the 41st consecutive year of dividend increases” (February 20, 2014).  http://news.walmart.com/news-archive/2014/02/20/walmart-raises-annual-dividend-to-192-per-share-representing-the-41st-consecutive-year-of-dividend-increases.

[ix] Based on our analysis of the museum’s annual tax returns (IRS Form 990-PF).

[x] Evie Blad, “Museum-tied hotel has Walton stamp Crystal Bridges draws few outsiders,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (June 13, 2010) via Lexis Nexis

[xi] Evie Blad, “Taxes lost on museum unclear; Crystal Bridges exemptions will pay off, officials say,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (March 8, 2010).

[xii] Ben Davis, “Seeing Through Crystal Bridges: An Analysis of the New Yorker’s Profile of Walmart Heiress and Museum Patron Alice Walton,” Blouin ArtInfo (June 23, 2011). http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/278836/seeing-through-crystal-bridges-an-analysis-of-the-new-yorkers

[xiii] Phil Oliff, Chris Mai, and Vincent Palacios, “States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (June 27, 2012). http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=711

[xiv]  Taxes lost on museum unclear Crystal Bridges exemptions will pay off, officials. Evie Blad.  Arkansas-Democrat Gazette  March 8, 2010

[xv] http://www.inarkansas.com/article/soiree/26863/crystal-bridges-museum-for-alice-walton-its-about-love8212of-art-history-country-and-family

[xvi] Taxes lost on museum unclear Crystal Bridges exemptions will pay off, officials. Evie Blad.  Arkansas-Democrat Gazette  March 8, 2010

[xvii] Lee Rosenbaum, “At the New York Public Library, It’s Sell First, Raise Money Later ,” The Wall Street Journal (November 1, 2005). http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB113079900058884594?mod=weekend_leisure_banner_left&mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB113079900058884594.html%3Fmod%3Dweekend_leisure_banner_left ; Rebecca Solnit, “Alice Walton’s Fig Leaf,” The Nation (March 6, 2006). http://www.thenation.com/article/alice-waltons-fig-leaf#; Lee Ronsenbaum, “New Yorker Corker: ‘Crystal Bridges Has Earned the Respect of the Museum Establishment,’” CultureGrrl (June 21, 2011). http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2011/06/crystal_bridges_has_earned_the.html; Lee Rosenbaum, “Reading the Fine Print: What’s Wrong with the Fisk/Crystal Bridges Agreement? CORRECTED,” CultureGrrl (August 16, 2012). http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2012/08/whats_wrong_with_the_agreement.html

[xviii] It is worth noting that Alice Walton is the chairman of the Museum board, which is composed in its majority of Waltons and individuals who work for them or for Walmart, including: Alice’s nephew Thomas L. Walton, Richard D. Chapman (the chief financial officer of Walton Enterprises, see http://investing.businessweek.com/research/stocks/people/person.asp?personId=184272534&ticker=FSLR&previousCapId=66357134&previousTitle=Greener%20Capital), Buddy Philpot (Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation, according to the Foundation’s 2012 tax return), and Doug McMillon (Walmart CEO). Source: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, IRS Form 990-PF (2004-2012).