Art, Art History and Design, School of


Date of this Version

Summer 6-27-2012


Tyler, Kelsey. "Framing Cultural Capitalism: William Wilson Corcoran and Alice Walton as Patrons of the American Art Museum." MA thesis. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2012.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: Art History, Under the Supervision of Professor Wendy J. Katz. Lincoln, Nebraska: July, 2012

Copyright (c) 2012 Kelsey E. Tyler


In 2011, Alice Walton opened what is now considered to be among the most important American art collections in the country, in a museum called Crystal Bridges, in Bentonville, Arkansas. What is remarkable is not only the exorbitant amount of money spent to open the museum - over $800 million dollars - but also that she was the primary financier. William Wilson Corcoran, a mid-nineteenth-century banker, in many ways is a better comparison than Morgan or Gardner, as like Walton he intended to found a museum dedicated specifically to American art. His museum, which he hoped would become a national gallery, would in the nation’s capital advocate for American artistic achievements rather than European ones. His gallery – open free to the public on two nights a week – would also expose the common man and woman to artwork that expressed beliefs about the unique nature of American identity, behavior and politics.

This thesis will show how and why Corcoran, as a private individual, was able to position his gallery as one of the most important American art museums in the country. Before Paul DiMaggio and Lawrence Levine described the process, Corcoran took steps toward the sacralization of his art collection, distinguishing himself from existing art associations and their structures of governance. I will then demonstrate how Crystal Bridges operates as an illustration of what might be called “post-sacralization.” DiMaggio and Levine argue that in the late nineteenth century, cultural gatekeepers began to erect new spatial and functional barriers between high culture and popular culture, in order to secure control over the definitions of high art. They did so partly through institutional frameworks like museums that repositioned private interests and collections in terms of public aims and education.

Adviser: Wendy J. Katz