June 12, 2007
By Pamela Mortimer
Wal-Mart Heiress Alice Walton was rebuffed when she attempted to purchase a $68 million painting from the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Obtaining the 1876 Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece “The Gross Clinic” was the main objective of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton when she visited the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. The painting, which garnered Ms. Walton’s attention, was not something she intended to hang over her sofa. Instead, she wanted to purchase it for a new public museum she is building in her hometown, and Wal-Mart birthplace, Bentonville, Arkansas.
While people the world over enjoy and indulge in visiting artistic masterpieces, Philadelphia residents were determined to keep the Eakins painting right where it belonged – in Philadelphia. In fact, when the news of the purchase was released to the media, Philadelphians “went ballistic”. The dramatic painting which depicts Dr. Samuel Gross, a former student and instructor at Jefferson, gesturing to medical students with a bloody scalpel as he performs surgery, "is a picture that's all knotted up with Philadelphia and its excellence," said Kathleen Foster, Philadelphia Museum curator. "It's about teaching, medicine and the fine arts, all still important in this city."
Philadelphia Museum of Art director Anne d'Harnoncourt compared losing "The Gross Clinic" to Amsterdam losing Rembrandt's "The Night Watch."
But all was not lost. Due to a clause in the deal, the City of Brotherly Love had the option to keep the painting if they could match Walton’s price. They had 45 days to raise the funds to match the $68 million price tag. Residents pitched in to do what they could. The Annenberg Foundation rushed to help out with a $10 million gift. The Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts acquired a bridge loan which also assisted them to succeed in buying the painting out from under from Ms. Walton. Much to the delight and relief of the locals, “The Gross Clinic” is currently hanging at the Jefferson Medical College, located on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Walton didn’t leave empty handed, however. She purchased a smaller Eakins’ masterpiece depicting Dr. Benjamin Rand for $20 million.
The smaller painting, which is currently on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will undoubtedly hang in Walton’s new public museum, Crystal Bridges. The museum, designed by Moshe Safdie, a Boston-based architect, will feature six glass and wood pavilions, two ponds and a sculpture garden, all located on 100 acre, partly wooded site.
Scheduled to open in late 2009, Crystal Bridges is expected to draw 250,000 visitors to Bentonville each year.
Contrary to popular opinion, Alice Walton’s pet project is not simply a result of impulse shopping. A serious watercolorist and collector, the Texas resident, known for raising champion cutting horses, has developed a reputation of being a savvy businesswoman. One source commented that Walton doesn’t go out and buy “just because she can”. Although there will be need to be many more acquisitions to fill the walls of Crystal Bridges, the growing collection currently includes works by Winslow Homer, Gilbert Stuart, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Edward Hopper. Although the museum will exhibit some contemporary work, most of the 20th-century painting will focus on American realists such as Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton, and Andrew Wyeth.
"She's intensely involved in telling the story of America through its art," says Safdie.