Life imitates art for new Crystal Bridges board chair Olivia Walton

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 2,610 views 

Olivia Walton is the new chairperson of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art board of directors. Reflecting on her lifetime of arts interest, Walton said it’s a dream come true to have the privilege of assuming the museum’s top leadership post. (PHOTO BY BETH HALL)

As a television journalist, Olivia Walton made a name for herself. As a teenager, she imagined a career in the arts.

During her senior year of high school, while filling out an application to the University of Pennsylvania, Walton (nee Sterns) encountered this essay question — what would page 217 of your 300-page autobiography be?

During a 2016 interview for NBCNews.com, Walton recalled her creative answer.

“At this point in my life, I was [going to be] living in New York City, and I had a successful job on Wall Street,” she said. “[But] I decided to quit my job because I wanted to run the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Silly, but I believed it.”

Though it is not the “Met,” Walton’s high school aspiration to lead a powerhouse U.S. museum is now a reality.

Walton is the new chairperson of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art board of directors. Since the Bentonville museum’s opening in November 2011, founder Alice Walton, the only daughter of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton, held the chairperson role. She has moved into a board member position while focusing on other organizations she’s founded in recent years, including Art Bridges Foundation, Alice L. Walton Foundation, and Whole Health Institute.

“Luckily, Alice isn’t going anywhere,” Olivia Walton said in a recent interview. “She is very supportive, and most of all, we have an outstanding staff. The executive team is really strong, and we have 300 employees. This is really a well-oiled machine.”

Reflecting on her lifetime of arts interest, Walton said it’s a dream come true to have the privilege of assuming the museum’s top leadership post.

“I grew up in the arts,” she said. “My mother was an art dealer. I was a museum junkie throughout my 20s, and I minored in art history [in college]. I have always loved the arts and museums.”

Walton, who is married to Tom Walton, a grandson of Sam and Helen Walton, said she’s also excited about the opportunity because she believes in the founder’s long-term vision for the museum. Construction is scheduled to start early next year to add 100,000 square feet to the 200,000-square-foot facility. That will showcase a growing collection and add room for more visitors to the museum, which has welcomed more than 5.6 million people from around the world already, with no admission fee. A larger museum will increase capacity for presenting art and exhibitions, educational and outreach initiatives, cultural programming, and community events in one of the country’s fastest-growing metro regions.

“I think we are in lockstep around the mission, around expanding access and a deep commitment to inclusion and creating a sense of belonging for all,” she said. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is. And my parents, knowing what I wrote about for my college essay, they’re pretty excited, too.”

LIFELONG PASSION
Walton grew up in Manhattan, only a few blocks away from the Met. Her mother owned an art gallery, and that was one of several factors that triggered Walton’s lifelong interest in and passion for the arts.

“My mom always had contemporary art on the walls of our home,” she said. “I would go do my homework at her art gallery in middle and high school. My junior year, we got to go to the Met for an art history class every Thursday, and that made such a huge impression on me.”

During the summer before her senior year of high school, Walton traveled throughout Europe, which further sparked her interest in art.

“It’s always been a passion,” she said. “I pursued a career in journalism, but [art] has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.”

Olivia Walton was a television journalist for several years, including a stint as a reporter and anchor for Bloomberg Television in New York and London.

Walton earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 and a later a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

Until 2016, Walton was a journalist for several years. Her last assignment was the business and technology correspondent for NBC News, reporting for “Today,” “Nightly News with Lester Holt” and MSNBC. Before joining NBC, she was a reporter and anchor for Bloomberg Television in New York and London.

TV TRANSITION
Tom Walton, the son of Arvest Bank Group Inc. chairman and CEO Jim Walton, married Olivia Sterns in 2016. Mutual friends were responsible for getting them together initially in New York City.

“One of our first dates was at [Museum of Modern Art] PS1 in New York,” Olivia said. “Tom sometimes jokes that he has to credit Alice for us being together. If it weren’t for Alice, he certainly would not have known [of] PS1, and he definitely wouldn’t have taken a girl to see some art.”

The Waltons now live in Bentonville with their two daughters. Tom Walton is a co-founder of Runway Group. The holding company promotes an outdoor-focused lifestyle by making strategic investments in several areas including real estate, hospitality, cycling and aviation.

Olivia Walton’s transition away from being a television journalist in the world’s media capital to an arts industry leader in Bentonville is a successful one. In 2018, she co-founded the Heartland Summit, an invitation-only event in Bentonville for attendees to participate in interactive discussions on topics impacting the nation’s heartland, ranging from the arts to investment.

Walton joined the Crystal Bridges board of directors in 2019. For the past year, anticipating the museum’s leadership transition plan, she sat in on most of Alice Walton’s regular meetings with Rod Bigelow, the museum’s executive director since 2013.

In 2020, Walton also guided the opening of the Momentary, the museum’s satellite contemporary arts organization in Bentonville, as co-founder and executive board chairwoman. She also has a leadership role with Oz Art NWA, which supports the regional arts scene with its collection on view throughout Bentonville and collaborates with regional and national artists to bring outdoor art to parks and trails.

Walton will continue to lead the Momentary. In addition to various art, the Momentary features culinary experiences, festivals and music — what Walton describes as more accessible ways for people to enjoy the arts. She is also a national board member for Teach for America.

Those experiences and working closely with Alice Walton over the past few years have been instrumental in preparing Olivia Walton for her expanded leadership role with Crystal Bridges.

“Alice has been incredibly welcoming to me, and I am grateful for that,” she said. “Alice is a visionary, and what I admire most about her is she takes a big-tent view of what art is. She is committed to expanding the definition of art, and I think that’s exciting. Everything about Crystal Bridges is anti-elitist. We say we’re not letting a small group of elite art critics in big cities tell us what art is and what we should appreciate. And she’s made good on that.”

ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Aside from the museum’s physical expansion plans, Walton said she’s excited about additional programming. She said the museum recently renamed its education department to learning and engagement and has developed resources that connect specific works of art with school curricula and offer suggestions for lessons in the classroom.

“There is huge potential to reach people beyond the physical walls of the museum,” she said.

There’s also a new outdoor play space in development on the southeast side of Crystal Bridges’ 120-acre campus, called Convergence. In details released in October 2020, museum officials said Convergence will be “a robust, outdoor, family play space inspired by arts, science, nature and design, inclusive for guests of all ages.”

The design for the project, which will tie the Crystal Bridges campus in with the Scott Family Amazeum campus, is funded by the Walton Family Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program.

“As a mother of two small girls, I am incredibly excited about the Convergence,” Walton said.

Walton is also enthusiastic about Northwest Arkansas’ place in the national arts conversation.

“I think we’re on the map; I think Bentonville is up there with Marfa,” she said, referencing the small west Texas town that’s known as an arts hub. “Whenever I’m on the coasts, people know of Crystal Bridges, and they respect what Alice is doing. They admire the collection, and I think we’re on the shortlist for top art destinations in the country.

“There’s a lot more we can do to add to that, and I think we are doing that with the Momentary, in particular, and what we’re doing with Oz Art. When I hear people say about Bentonville, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s art everywhere,’ that’s how I know we’re on the right track.”