Pile it high

Galleries - Discount shopping and fine art? Suzi Parker on the latest offer from Wal-Mart

A small town in the hilly corner of a rural American southern state seems an unlikely place for a multimillion-dollar art museum. It seems less strange when one considers its founder: Alice Walton, heiress and daughter of Sam Walton, who created Wal-Mart Stores in 1950 in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas. The world's largest retailer (2003 global revenue: $259bn) has its world headquarters in this small city, which can credit its population boom, house-price increase and lack of unemployment to its late, famous resident. Companies with connections to the discount giant, such as Gillette, have also moved in so that their salesmen and company officials can be close to Wal-Mart leaders. But art?

Alice Walton - if not the richest woman in the world, then certainly in the top five - recently bought (with the Walton Family Foundation) Asher Brown Durand's Kindred Spirits for $35m from the New York Public Library, apparently seeing off a competing bid from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It is the largest sum ever paid for an American painting.

Soon after the purchase, Walton un-veiled plans of her dream for the 100,000-square-foot glass and wood Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which, she said, would be created in the rustic location of Bentonville. It is not a tourist Mecca, but Walton and her advisers believe in the mantra "build it and people will come". She has been collecting art all her life, but was relatively quiet about her project. "Crystal Bridges is a wonderful way to build appreciation for America's artistic heritage and create cultural opportunities here in north-west Arkansas," was all she would say at the launch.

There is no doubt that Walton knows her fine art. She is on the board of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and a member of the trustees' council of the National Gallery of Art. The Crystal Bridges, costing $50m and slated to open in May 2009, will concentrate on Native American art and American artists from the colonial era to the 20th century, a broad category that covers many of her somewhat idiosyncratic acquisitions: Sick Puppy by Norman Rockwell, George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, Spring by Winslow Homer. Charles Bird King's 19th-century portraits of Native American leaders will be a centrepiece. Walton also plans to hang other paintings lent by major museums.

In addition, Crystal Bridges will house a reference library and a distance-learning programme. It aims to offer those who may never travel to Europe or New York a chance to view masterpieces in America's heartland, and there are plenty of such folks in the hills of Arkansas. Since 11 September 2001, a sense of American pride has prevailed, and even art collectors have become caught up in the patriotic spirit. Walton, of course, comes from a family that pushes red-state Americana and American values. So, understandably, her gallery will focus on home-grown art.

However, as with many stories that swirl around the discount-store empire (such as accusations of unfair wages and sex discrimination), controversy already surrounds Crystal Bridges. This year, the Arkansas general assembly passed a tax exemption that, critics claim, has been drafted specifically as a loophole not only for the purchase of Kindred Spirits (which, remember, cost $35m), but also its future home. This is because the act has precise guidelines: exempt museums must open before 2013, cost more than $30m to build, and house more than $100m worth of art. Not even the most ardent fan of culture in Arkansas would claim that a huge art museum will be built in the state within the next eight years - apart from Crystal Bridges, which perfectly fits these criteria.

The legislation's sponsor said that Arkansas needed to pass such a law if it was to lure such a prestigious project from other sites such as New York or Texas, the state that Alice Walton calls home. Tourism dollars will make up the difference, supporters say. Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas claims that "Crystal Bridges will provide a huge boost for the economy and culture of our state. We're awestruck by the generosity Alice Walton has shown."

Moshe Safdie, a Boston-based architect, will design the building. Safdie masterminded Habitat '67, the first major prefabricated housing project ever constructed, at the Expo '67 in Montreal. He also designed the National Gallery of Canada. Perhaps his best-known work has been in restoring Jerusalem's Old City and linking it to the New City. Safdie has a similar purpose in Bentonville. He will guide the town, now a quaint throwback to 1950s Americana without so much as a cinema downtown, into a redesign that will accommodate the inevitable increase in traffic and an expected 250,000 tourists per year. The landscape architect Peter Walker will incorporate paths and sculpture gardens into the 100-acre site. But will cultural tourists embrace the birthplace of the discount megastore? The area is certainly steadying itself for an aesthetic renaissance; last month, a private reception attended by Alexandre Renoir, great-grandson of the French painter, was hosted by another local wealthy collector, and showed masterpieces by Picasso and Chagall.

Walton hopes to tell America's history through her collection of masterpieces. That is her dream. She isn't too worried about a legacy for her name: the Walton dynasty has already made endowments worth millions to philanthropic projects, including $300m to the University of Arkansas (the largest donation in history to a public university in the US). She does not need yet more gilt lettering.

Nevertheless, although American philanthropy to galleries is familiar, whole museums started by a single, private collection are not overly common, and Walton may be drawn by the notion of setting up her own institution. In the southern states, such individualised projects have started to enjoy success - for example, the Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St Louis, Missouri. On a smaller scale, Craig Hall, a businessman in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, has placed his own collection in the Texas Sculpture Garden along a meandering waterfront path.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is banking on tourists recognising that, while Wal-Mart might signify discount goods, it does not mean cheap art; and it hopes Bentonville will become a beacon in a culture-free zone.

For most people in the southern and Midwestern states bordering Arkansas, especially much of the population in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Missouri, fine art is something that occurs in global cities - Paris, London, New York. While this museum will serve rural Southerners who may not know a Winslow Homer from an Asher B Durand, it hopes to go further. Walton has connections. Some connoisseurs hope she will show interest in the all-American Terra Collection, started by Daniel J Terra, who died in 1996. In October, the Terra Museum in Chicago closed. Walton could be a patron saint for such homeless collections.

Walton has yet to say in detail what is in her private collection, or what she will borrow, as she is incredibly hush-hush about her art-buying. Perhaps that is because, in some circles, she is seen simply as the heiress to a company that sells cheap products, who is building a museum on a hillbilly mountainside instead of donating her collection to an East Coast establishment. Some art wags have even cracked that Walton's collection will end up in Wal-Mart as cheap reproductions on black velvet. That is highly doubtful, given Walton's love of art; but if iconic American images become better known thanks to Crystal Bridges, one of her aims will have been met.

Besides, visiting the new museum will probably beat drifting around the only other attraction in town - the neon-lit aisles of Wal-Mart's Bentonville supercentre.

Suzi Parker is a writer specialising in the Deep South