For such a hotly anticipated, headline-making new landmark, Crystal Bridges, Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s eight-month-old American art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, makes a surprisingly subtle first impression. Its slate-gray geometric edifice just barely peers out from the lush green landscape that surrounds it, beckoning, to be sure, but not quite declaring itself in the way that a pillared marble façade or a Renzo Piano–designed wall of glass screams, “I’m here!”
Indeed, Crystal Bridges initially exudes a kind of coyness on par with that of the region itself—an unlikely destination (at least as far as the greater United States is concerned) that is asking potential visitors to give it a chance. It’s also indicative of the museum founder’s chief intent: to inspire a sense of discovery through art, architecture and northwest Arkansas’ natural splendor. “It’s a bit of a metaphor, if you will,” says Sandy Edwards, deputy director of museum relations. “We call it ‘celebrating the American spirit,’ but the idea is that it’s in an American’s nature to explore, to find new places.”
Walton started seriously thinking about Crystal Bridges in the late 1990s. “I thought [an art museum] was something we desperately needed, and what a difference it would have made were it here when I was growing up,” Walton told The New York Times. So she set out to transform a town of 35,000—which until now has only been known for being home to Walmart, which her father, Sam, founded—into an American art mecca. She enlisted Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, whom she invited to Bentonville after visiting his Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Drawn to the building’s fluid placement within its natural surroundings, she wanted him to design a structure that blended just as inconspicuously into Arkansas’ landscape.
The impressive 201,000-square-foot space unfolds within a deep Ozarks ravine, its copper-roofed pods extending across the Town Branch stream and surrounded on all sides by indigenous greenery, reworked and recultivated in conjunction with the museum’s five-year construction.
The majority of the artworks were acquired over the last five years, in what has amounted to a multimillion-dollar buying spree for which Walton has been both chided and praised. Art historian John Wilmerding, who has also been an advisor to Walton, has put the collection “in the top half of American art museums, maybe higher.” Standout acquisitions include Charles Willson Peale’s George Washington (ca. 1780–82); 1930s- and ’40s-era Regionalist masterworks by Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton; Kerry James Marshall’s Our Town (1995), a contemporary history painting of sorts, musing on the African American experience; a stunning Louise Nevelson wall piece; feathers, ravines and apples by Georgia O’Keeffe; modestly scaled atmospheric landscapes by Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt; and Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, an ethereal 1849 canvas and exemplar of the Hudson River School aesthetic.
The museum’s galleries, laid out chronologically, are more strung together than they are stacked and are interrupted by frequent “nature breaks”—glass-walled passageways that look out onto the 120-acre property, framing the picture-perfect landscape as if it were a work of art itself. Mini libraries are scattered throughout, allowing visitors to explore the art or artists they’ve just seen a bit more in depth. “There’s been concern that people are walking off with the books,” Edwards says. “They’re not. And if they were, well, you just kind of build that into the equation.” It is, by no means, meant to encourage theft. But this sort of “what’s mine is yours” ethos radiates throughout.
Safdie has called Crystal Bridges “a happy building,” and it’s easy to see why. Perhaps it’s the location, perhaps it’s the layout, perhaps it’s the accessibility of much of the artwork on view (almost half of the total collection), but Crystal Bridges doesn’t have the sort of hallowed, silent feel found in many museums. Some of the more iconic works on display (Norman Rockwell’s 1943 Rosie the Riveter, for example) have inspired lively on-site exchanges and debates (in this case, if the women’s lib movement would have been possible without Rosie and her ilk).
In its early forecasts, the museum estimated that 250,000 people would visit in its first year. As of May, six months in, almost 300,000 have already passed through. The free admission (courtesy of Walmart) plays a part, and it’s hard to say whether or not the regional response would be quite so powerful if Crystal Bridges were charging MoMA’s $25 a head. But save for the bottleneck toward the front, the galleries are able to take the crowds.
In Bentonville proper—especially near Downtown Square—a sort of Bilbao effect is taking hold (referring to the staggering impact that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has had on the otherwise unremarkable Spanish town). A branch of Louisville’s art-savvy 21c Museum Hotel is on pace to open in early 2013, and 23 new restaurants have debuted in the last year.
It’s not just brick-and-mortar growth that Bentonville is undergoing, though. Crystal Bridges is affecting the town’s psyche too. The city has historically escaped flyover status only because of Walmart’s stronghold—strong enough, for instance, that major vendors come to them to do business. It was a sleepy town, a corporate town, a town that few would ever go see. In many ways, it still is. But that’s starting to change. I sat opposite a cluster of New York couples inside The Way of Color, James Turrell’s open-air installation, at sunset (in my opinion, the most sublime art experience the museum has to offer). Non-regional museum-goers amounted to 10 percent of its first 300,000 visitors. That figure is expected to climb by year-end.
Walton continues to build the collection, seeking to fill those “holes” that many reviewers were quick to point out when Crystal Bridges first opened (folk artists, per The New York Times; strong examples of postwarisms, per The Wall Street Journal). In fact, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently allowed Walton to proceed with her $30 million, 50 percent stake in what was once Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe’s modern art collection. The seller, Nashville’s Fisk University, was criticized (and sued) for betraying the terms of O’Keeffe’s original donation in exchange for Walton’s substantial funds—the sort of offer that very few, I’d imagine, could refuse.
Walton, herself, has a particular resonance throughout the town as part monarch, part legend, part patron saint. My taxi driver was alarmingly up to date on her inheritance stats (some $20 billion), and Cecil Turner, owner of the 14-year-old Station Cafe, says her presence and outreach make locals feel like they’ve hit the jackpot. “Crystal Bridges would be an asset anywhere in the world,” Turner adds. “But to have it here in Bentonville is amazing. And that’s because of Alice Walton. We are very blessed.”
Crystal Bridges is at 600 Museum Way. For more details, go to crystalbridges.org.
What to See at Crystal Bridges Museum
Alice Walton has amassed a museum collection of 1,000 artworks. Around 400 are on display. Herewith, a few standouts.
Rosie the Riveter, 1943, Norman Rockwell. Acquired in 2009 for $4.9 million.
Supine Woman, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud. Acquired in 2009 for $1.8 million.
Dolly Parton, 1985, Andy Warhol. Acquired in 2010 for $914,500.
Our Town, 1995, Kerry James Marshall. Acquired in 2009 for $782,500.
George Washington, ca. 1780-1782, Charles Willson Peale. Acquired in 2004 for $6.2 million.
The Lantern Bearers, 1908, Maxfield Parrish. Acquired in 2006 for $4.3 million.
Crystal Bridges Museum: The Details
Fly: Direct flights to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport are available on American Airlines (aa.com) from New York, and on Delta (delta.com) from most other major hubs. Crystal Bridges is a 30-minute drive from the airport.
Stay: The year-old Laughlin House Bed & Breakfast (rooms, from $80; 102 NW 3rd St.; 479-268-6085; laughlinhousebb.com) is a scenic 15-minute stroll from the museum. Or, come 2013, stay at the nearby 21c Museum Hotel (21cmuseumhotels.com), a gallery-hotel hybrid.
Eat: Crystal Bridges serves fresh local fare at its restaurant Eleven (600 Museum Way; 479-418-5700; crystalbridges.org); go Wednesday or Friday before heading up the Art Trail to experience James Turrell’s The Way of Color at dusk. In town, indulge in the house-cured duck pastrami at the recently opened Tusk & Trotter (110 SE A St.; 479-268-4494; tuskandtrotter.com) or go for Latin fusion at the perpetually packed Table Mesa (108 E. Central Ave., Ste. 10; 479-715-6706; tablemesabistro.com).