Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges lures art enthusiasts from around the world Story and photos by Cynthia Calvert Many know that Walmart’s headquarters are in Bentonville, Ark., but most aren’t aware of the area’s art culture. On a recent tour of Northwest Arkansas, I was amazed at the concentration of art found far from the beaten path to the art world. Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, opened a museum of American art a couple of years ago, which has gained international attention from the art community.
Upon arrival in Bentonville, I checked into the lovely 21c (21cmuseumhotels.com), a museum-hotel, where art comes first and lodging second. 21c began in 2006 with its first museum-hotel in Louisville, Ky., adding another in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2012 and the most recent location in Bentonville in February of this year. All locations are combinations of museums, boutique hotels and restaurants. The first floor is museum and restaurant, with the hotel above. Their focus is “anchored by world-class contemporary art by today’s emerging and internationally acclaimed artists,” hence the name 21c, for 21st century. Each aspect was thoughtfully planned and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.
Sam Walton had a couple of stores in Newport. Ark., before his Bentonville location, but that location proved his most successful to that point since he didn’t have lease worries there (he was forced out of his first Newport store by a landlord who saw his success and wanted the store back for his son, thus refused to renew the lease). Walton persevered and opened his new store in Bentonville on May 9, 1950. That store – now the Walmart Visitors Center – is the second most visited museum in Bentonville, after Crystal Bridges. It’s a charming and informative visit, complete with a soda shop. Walmart’s first distribution center and home office opened in Bentonville in 1971. Walton died in 1992 and left his fortune to his children. His daughter, Alice, led the Walton Family Foundation’s development of the museum, which opened Nov. 11, 2011, with more than 600,000 visitors in its first year. The museum was built on land owned by the Walton family in
the heart of the Ozarks. It sits on 120 acres with 3.5 miles of trails and a bridge over Crystal Spring, for which the museum is named. There’s a beautiful garden along the banks of the spring and several art sculptures are scattered along the trail. Crystal Bridges Trail is part of the Bentonville Trail System and connects the museum’s south entrance with downtown Bentonville via the Art Trail. It will also take you to Compton Gardens, set around the family home of Neil Compton, a Bentonville physician who is noted as the savior of the Buffalo River, with his successful efforts to stop the river’s damming. The gardens showcase 6.5 acres of native woodland plants, walking trails and prairie.Be on the lookout for the dozens of penguin sculptures that roam throughout. Hotel staff keeps them on the move and you might even find one in your room – Bentonville’s are green, Louisville’s red and Cincinnati’s yellow. The museums’ displays change frequently. Currently on display in Bentonville is Jose Toirac’s series, “A Brief History of Cuba As Told By Other Things,” which features “provocative juxtapositions of historical or media images with logos for Western consumer brands.” While all of the towns in Northwest Arkansas have their own unique offerings of art, shopping, natural beauty and much more, Bentonville, the home of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, is the one place you just cannot miss. The history of how it came to be begins with Walmart’s start 50 years ago.
Inside the museum. designed by Moshe Safdie, are masterworks from artists, all Americans, such as Norman Rockwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, William Merritt Chase and many more. From Native American art to contemporary works in a variety of mediums, it’s an impressive collection by virtually all standards. The museum is a
tribute to American art and artists, chronologically arranged. Visitors can wander unguided or tour under the leadership of one of the expert docents (pre arrangements necessary). Walton wants visitors to appreciate the influential juxtaposition of history and geography upon the artist and subsequently, to feel bathed in the American experience. The collection of pieces is stunning and includes such luminous paintings as “Kindred Spirits” by Asher Brown Durand, “Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand” by Thomas Eakins, “George Washington-The Constable-Hamilton Portrait” by Gilbert Stuart, “Winter Scene in Brooklyn” by Francis Guy, “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” by John Singer Sargent, “The Reader” by Mary Cassatt, “Dolly Parton” by Andy Warhol and “Rosie the Riveter” by Norman Rockwall. Hopper, Lichtenstein, O’Keeffe, Homer and more - it is a comprehensive and must-see collection. There are also significant sculptures in the museum. Alice encountered some push back at times, with some feeling Northwest Arkansas unworthy of such fine art, but she persevered as her father had in the past.
In April 2012, TIME Magazine named Alice Walton to the “TIME 100” list of the 100 most influential people in the world, noting “With Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, [Alice Walton] has placed a daring bet that a small town can become a big art-world destination. We’re betting she’s right.” And the best part could just be that it is all free. That’s
right, entry to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is free. While at Crystal Bridges, be sure to eat at their restaurant, Eleven, named for the date the museum opened (11-11-11). The menu is planned around the artworks, natural surroundings and fresh ingredients from the Bentonville Farmers Market … delicious and gorgeous.
To plan your trip to Bentonville, visit Bentonville.org. Cutlines: The museum is a stunning building with sculpture, pathways, streams and bridges surrounding it. The Walmart Visitor’s Center Delicious shrimp and grits are featured at Eleven.