Tucked into the quiet, northwestern corner of Arkansas, Bentonville never exactly has been a major tourist destination. Many Memphians regularly make their way to nearby Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, and to historic Eureka Springs, just to the east, not to mention the Ozarks’ numerous recreational areas nearby. But until now, visitors have usually traveled to Bentonville on business, given the town’s special status as corporate headquarters of Walmart Stores, the world’s largest public company (in terms of revenue), and, with 2 million employees/associates, its biggest private employer.
All that may now change, however, thanks to last month’s grand opening of the widely anticipated and undoubtedly world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Not surprisingly, there is a Walmart connection, as the country’s newest major cultural institution is the brainchild of Alice Walton, founder Sam’s only daughter, and, according to Forbes magazine, the 10th richest person in the nation.
Armed with an $800 million endowment from the Walton Family Foundation, Walton built the museum as a gift to Arkansas, and indeed to the world. Her mission: to celebrate the American spirit, and to trace our history through some of the nation’s greatest works of art.
I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to represent this magazine on a media-preview tour of the museum, along with distinguished representatives from the likes of NPR, Time magazine, The Economist, and Bloomberg News. We made the five-hour drive to Bentonville from Memphis (via I-40 West to I-540 North) and checked into the Simmons Suites, which had been recommended by the museum staff. The hotel is well situated, close to the center of town, and we crossed the street for a steak dinner at the elegantly appointed, upscale River Grille. I should add that accommodations in the Bentonville area are plentiful, since every major hotel chain on the planet seems to have an outpost there. The same goes for chain restaurants to fit all pocketbooks.
Our group was picked up the next morning and whisked away to the museum. Though it seems light years away, Crystal Bridges is located only a short distance from downtown. Its construction was clearly quite an engineering feat, as the museum is nestled in a ravine between two wooded hillsides. Composed of eight pavilions, Crystal Bridges offers dramatic views of the natural landscape (which includes several central reflecting ponds fed by an active spring) from every direction.
The museum walls are built of architectural concrete, with wood inlays, and the roofing materials are Arkansas white pine and copper. Three-and-a-half miles of biking and walking trails wind through the museum’s 120-acre park and gardens.
We were graciously welcomed by Don Bacigalupi, Crystal Bridges’ executive director, and we enjoyed meeting a number of his staff including Kevin Murphy, curator of American art (formerly of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California) and Chris Crossman, curator of collections. We were graciously wined and dined throughout the day — from lunch to an evening cocktail reception — with fabulous food and drink, courtesy of the excellent museum restaurant.
Crystal Bridges was designed by Boston-based Moshe Safdie, the famous modernist architect and urban planner known for creating welcoming buildings and public spaces that contribute in meaningful ways to their setting while encouraging a vibrant public life; among his many museum creations are the National Gallery of Canada and the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. Safdie, happily, was present in person for this special preview tour. He explained that, from the outset, his aim was to design a museum where art and nature could be experienced simultaneously and harmoniously. As we walked along with him, he seemed to delight in the “magic” created when light was reflected off the outside ponds into the galleries.
Crystal Bridges’ stunning permanent collection spans five centuries of American masterpieces, ranging from Colonial-era classic to twenty-first-century contemporary. Included in the collection are iconic images such as Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell, Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (bought for a widely publicized price of $35 million from the New York Public Library), and Maxfield Parrish’s The Lantern Bearers, each work reflecting a distinct moment in America’s artistic evolution. Portraiture ranges from paintings of George Washington by Charles W. Peale and Gilbert Stuart to Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of Dolly Parton.
The curving walls of the galleries gave the museum’s curators an opportunity to represent, quite literally, the sweep of art history, in turn allowing visitors to get panoramic views as they enter. Plans call for a changing array of special exhibitions, featuring American art from museums and collections throughout the region, across the nation and from overseas. And Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection is still a work in progress; apparently there’s a Jackson Pollock on the board’s wish list.
In addition to its art galleries and restaurant, the magnificent museum complex will ultimately encompass a 50,000-volume open-stack library, meeting and office space, a glass-enclosed gathering hall, a museum store, and special areas for outdoor concerts and public events. In keeping with Walton’s belief that the arts should be an essential part of a child’s education, the museum is also developing educational programming for K-12 school groups, including student tours, classroom programs, curriculum connections, and in-depth technology-based education.
The really good news about Crystal Bridges is that a $20 million grant from Walmart ensures that admission will remain free to all. In the spirit of “build it and they will come,” the museum is expected to draw an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 visitors a year, with especially large crowds in December. Reserving timed tickets in advance for this particular period is recommended. For more information and further details, consult the museum website at crystalbridges.org.
The growth of Walmart has inevitably meant a parallel explosion of growth in Bentonville, bringing with it an influx of workers and corporate types from around the world. As one friendly waitress told us, “Nobody is from Bentonville anymore.” The old town square, however, has been lovingly spruced up and still retains its small-town charm, and nearby streets offer a number of vintage bungalows and other lovely homes to admire. We received a warm welcome at Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime store on the square, which dates to 1950 and now serves as a museum and the Walmart Visitor Center. Across the street, the staff at the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau, led by Kalene Griffith, president and CEO, were also very helpful in providing us with armfuls of literature on points of interest in the area. Unfortunately, as usual, we were in a hurry to get back to Memphis the next morning, but the next time we go to Bentonville, I am determined to return home via the slower and more scenic U.S. 62 East. However one gets there, every Memphian needs to put a trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on his or her must-do list. After all, this museum provides visitors with America’s most exciting new art-cum-architecture experience since the Getty Center in Los Angeles opened in 1997. Indeed, Crystal Bridges is surely one of the most important museums ever to open in our nation’s history. So make “Bentonville or Bust!” your New Year’s mantra.
Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts and lifestyle editor of Memphis magazine.