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Walmart heir wants museums to attract more people and donates $40 million to help

The Museo de Arte in Puerto Rico is one of 64 art museums receiving grants as part of a new initiative called "Access for All" funded by Alice Walton's Art Bridges foundation.
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
The Museo de Arte in Puerto Rico is one of 64 art museums receiving grants as part of a new initiative called "Access for All" funded by Alice Walton's Art Bridges foundation.

Alice Walton's foundation Art Bridges is providing $40 million in grants to 64 museums around the country, it announced Wednesday. The grants, ranging from $56,000 to more than $2 million for a three-year period, are intended to fund programs to attract new audiences, whether that means extending free hours or offering free meals.

Walton, one of the billionaire heirs to the Walmart fortune, said the impetus for the initiative, called "Access for All," was the pandemic's impact on museums and the general public.

"I think that there are a lot of repercussions in terms of mental health and stability for people coming out of the pandemic. So I really see this as a crucial point in time where we all need to figure out everything we can do to create that access," Walton said.

Alice Walton believes all museums should be free.
Stephen Ironside / Ironside Photography
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Ironside Photography
Alice Walton believes all museums should be free.

According to the American Alliance of Museums, recovery from the pandemic has been inconsistent. While nearly half of museums project an increase this year to their bottom lines, two-thirds report that attendance is down 30% from pre-pandemic levels.

Museums were chosen based on "annual operating expenses and admission cost structure," according to a statement from Art Bridges. Among the museums receiving grants are the Wichita Art Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, the Delaware Art Museum and the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

Free can be costly for many museums

María C. Gaztambide, executive director of Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, called the Access for All grant "transformational" (Art Bridges is not disclosing the grant amount). The museum has been free for just a few hours a week on Thursdays, but the money will go toward extending those hours and creating monthly family days, among other things.

Walton told NPR that she believes all museums should be free. But Gaztambide does not foresee a time when that could be a reality for Museo de Arte. Since the 2014 Puerto Rican debt crisis, she said, "energy costs are stratospheric."

"Of course, we would like our museum to be free," she said. "But we can't with the kind of energy bills that we face each month."

Free doesn't always equal an audience

Another grant recipient, the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is always free. Yet co-director Kathryn Coney-Ali said there are plenty of people who don't know the gallery exists, even though it was established in the late 1920s. Their plans for the grant include developing an interdisciplinary fine arts festival and bilingual programming.

In addition to attracting new visitors, Walton hopes the grants give museums the opportunity to focus on long-term sustainability.

"I hope it gives them the incentive to reach deep in their own communities to those that are able to help fund free access, at least for a part of the time," Walton said.

<em>Space Fall </em>by Akili Ron Anderson, 2015 Lithograph 24 x 37, from The Ronald W. and Patricia Walters Collection at the Howard University Gallery of Art.
/ Howard University Gallery of Art
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Howard University Gallery of Art
Space Fall by Akili Ron Anderson, 2015 Lithograph 24 x 37, from The Ronald W. and Patricia Walters Collection at the Howard University Gallery of Art.

This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco. The audio was produced by Phil Harrell.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.