Alice Louise Walton (1949–)
Alice Louise Walton is the heir to the Walton family fortune; in April 2019, she was estimated by Forbes magazine to have a net worth of almost $46 billion, making her one of the richest women in the world. She is also well known as a philanthropist, having established the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville (Benton County).
Alice Louise Walton was born on October 7, 1949, in Newport (Jackson County), the youngest of four children and the only daughter of Sam and Helen Walton. Sam Walton opened Walton’s Five and Dime Store in Bentonville and then created Walmart, which changed the retail industry worldwide. Alice Walton grew up in Bentonville, attending public schools there.
After graduating from Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas, with a BA in economics and finance, she worked at Walmart briefly as a buyer of children’s clothes. She married in 1974 and lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she went into the securities business with a branch of a Wall Street firm. After a divorce in 1977, she returned to Bentonville. Her father had bought a few small banks in the area, and she became manager of the investment portfolios of the banks; these banks were later merged to form Arvest Bank. She remarried, but the marriage was short lived, and she had no children. Walton purchased land and developed a ranch where she raised competitive show horses. This became a continuing hobby.
Walton’s mother had taught her to paint and to appreciate art, and art became a lasting passion. As her growing wealth from Walmart stock permitted, she studied and began to collect fine art.
While vacationing in Mexico in 1983, Walton had a car accident, breaking both legs. The Mexican doctors advised amputation of one leg. She was airlifted to the University of Arkansas Medical for Sciences (UAMS) hospital in Little Rock (Pulaski County). One leg healed satisfactorily, but the other was a problem due to infection and crushed bone. After several surgeries and treatments, the leg healed. In 1989, apparently driving at high speed, she struck and killed a pedestrian who stepped out into a country roadway at night. That incident was recorded as a no-fault accident. She also received publicity for driving-under-the-influence incidents. In 1998, in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties), she was fined $925 for driving while intoxicated after a one-car accident totaled her SUV. She was arrested in 2011 by a Texas state trooper for driving under the influence; that record was subsequently expunged.
Walton left the bank position and, in 1988, formed a broker-dealer securities firm. A friend had given her an exotic pet to raise on her ranch, and she named the firm in honor of the pet—Llama Company. The firm grew rapidly as she recruited experienced personnel, and it was a major dealer in trading and underwriting municipal bonds.
During this time, northwestern Arkansas needed an airport to accommodate the traffic that Walmart and other major firms were generating. The only commercial airport was at Fayetteville (Washington County) and was too small for major airline service; in addition, surrounding hills prevented expansion. Walmart visitors had to fly to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and drive to Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters. A vote for a tax for bonds to finance an airport had failed earlier. An airport would have to be financed on a speculative basis, relying on revenues of the project. Walton put up $15 million in initial financing. Through Llama, she placed an almost $80 million revenue bond issue to finance what is now the Northwest Arkansas National Airport in Benton County. The airport, which was dedicated in 1998, was an immediate success and was later expanded. She was recognized by the naming of the Alice L. Walton Terminal Building.
In 1998, Walton closed Llama, sold her ranch, and moved to Texas. She bought land west of Fort Worth and developed the Rocking W Ranch and later also owned the Fortune Bend Ranch.
Her passion for art resurfaced, and she decided to build an art museum—and build it in the small town of Bentonville. At first, the announcement was met with skepticism and ridicule by those who thought Arkansas was not the right place for this type of museum. But she pushed forward with the museum, which was financed by Walton and the Walton Family Foundation. The site was a small valley with Crystal Springs Creek flowing through it. Factors such as a costly construction site, an expensive architect, and unforeseen construction problems caused delays and cost overruns. The total cost has never been publicized.
On November 11, 2011, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened to the public. Walton had long been collecting art, and she bought more during the construction period so the museum would have a full display at opening. Walton spared no expense in buying art—paintings and sculpture—reportedly spending up to over $40 million for a single painting. She was criticized by museums and collectors for ruining the market for fine art when she outbid them at auctions.
The museum became a success and is recognized internationally. The first year’s attendance was three times that of most projections. A $20,000,000 Walmart Foundation endowment allows free admission to the public. In addition to the permanent collection, there are temporary exhibits, many in cooperation with other major museums. As to why she located the museum in northwestern Arkansas, she told Forbes magazine: “For years I’ve been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world. I thought this is something we desperately need, and what a difference it would have made were it here when I was growing up.”
In 2015, Walton put her Texas ranches on the market and moved to Fort Worth, retiring from ranching in favor of more time with museum matters. Her honors and recognitions include induction into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame; an honorary Doctor of Arts and Humane Letters from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville; first chair of the Northwest Arkansas Council; and a cover article in Forbes magazine. The Alice L. Walton Chair in Finance was established by UA in 1996. In 2020, she was awarded the Getty Medal by the J. Paul Trust for her patronage of the arts. In November 2021, she resigned from her position as chairperson of the board of the Crystal Bridges museum, although she remained on the board. In April 2022, the Alice L. Walton Foundation and Washington Regional Medical System announced that they were partnering to create a regional health system to expand local residents’ access to specialty care.
For additional information:
Brandon, Phyllis D. “Alice Louis Walton.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 4, 2001, pp. 1D, 7D.
Hendricks, Nancy. Notable Women of Arkansas: From Hattie to Hillary, 100 Names to Know. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2016.
Moore, Garrett. “Health System Partnership Announced.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 26, 2022, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/apr/25/alice-walton-foundation-washington-regional/ (accessed April 27, 2022).
Vogel, Carol, “A Billionaire’s Eye for Art Shapes Her Singular Museum.” New York Times, June 18, 2011, pp. 1C, 7C.
Whiteley, Michael, and Michelle Bradford. “Alice Walton Convicted in Drunken-driving Trial.” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, May 29, 1998, pp. 1A, 5A.
W. W. Satterfield
Little Rock, Arkansas
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