$20 Million Walmart Gift Makes Crystal Bridges Museum Free for Visitors, Forever

$20 Million Walmart Gift Makes Crystal Bridges Museum Free for Visitors, Forever
A model of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opening November 11, 2011.
(John Horner)
How will Alice Walton's megalithic Crystal Bridges museum attract art aficionados to its scenic (read: backwoods) location of Bentonville, Arkansas? Well, making admission free is one strategy. A newly announced $20 million sponsorship gift from Walmart, a company founded and owned by the Walton family, will pay for all Crystal Bridges visitors, forever. Take that, MoMA and your new $25 ticket price!

The Arkansas Times reports that the gift might not be all that it appears, though. "There may be an additional charge for special exhibitions," the paper reports. "General admission will be free. Museum members will receive complimentary or discounted admission to select exhibits and events." So if the museum happens to be hosting a blockbuster show like the Met's Alexander McQueen exhibition, for example, visitors will be on the hook for some extra money.

Few museums are as well endowed as Crystal Bridges has become, even before its public opening. The museum was the recipient of an $800 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation; in comparison, the Museum of Modern Art's 2009 endowment was reported at $818 million. Crystal Bridges likely has little need for income from admission, which typically makes up less than 10 percent of a museum's operating budget anyway.

The Walmart gift seems to be less about attracting tourists than about encouraging a local audience for the new museum. "The Northwest Arkansas community is so important to us" as a work and social center for the Arkansas-headquartered company's employees, says Walmart president and CEO Mike Duke in a press release. "We are excited about the cultural opportunities Crystal Bridges is bringing to our area and even more excited that our families, friends, and neighbors will experience it at no cost."