Arkansas: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art: Stunning Art in a Dramatic Setting
By Donald Blodger
If you were to name the locations of America’s finest art museums, what cities would you list?
Would you include New York City, Chicago, San Francisco or perhaps Los Angeles or even Boston? But what about Bentonville? That’s right, Bentonville, Arkansas.
A couple of years ago, Forbes Magazine ranked the world’s greatest art destinations, which listed perennial heavyweights such as the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Surprisingly, it also included an unlikely newcomer to the art world, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, located in Bentonville, Arkansas.
While traveling across the country, my wife and I recently visited Crystal Bridges.
We love art museums and have visited many of the world’s finest, so we were a bit skeptical about how a museum located in the northwest corner of Arkansas could be considered “world-class”.
Along the avenue to the entrance, we passed a long stretch of freshly cut soccer fields, full of kids in brightly colored team uniforms, and a museum called Amazeum.
We then entered a densely wooded area, following an open-air golf cart shuttling patrons who parked at one of the distant parking lots. We were not expecting this kind of setting.
The roadway led us to an unassuming portico, with the actual entrance to the museum two stories below. Exiting the elevator, we were instantly greeted with our first work of art, a 30-foot spider, complete with 26 marble eggs in its egg sac.
We were certainly charmed by this unusual bronze sculpture but eventually walked underneath it to the main door, never taking our eyes off the egg sac above.
Entering the foyer we were personally welcomed by a volunteer holding a handful of brochures. She asked where we lived and if we were interested in seeing anything in particular.
We wanted to start chronologically, so she walked us to the correct hallway, handed us our map and guided us in.
This was an interesting beginning, with soccer fields, a forest, a large spider and a very warm and personal welcome. Something was different.
Crystal Bridges was founded by Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation in 2005. Ms. Walton is an avid art collector and daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart.
Her personal contribution to Crystal Bridges was over $317 million dollars. Until the museum opened, Bentonville was known only as Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters, and the Wal-Mart Visitor Center was the biggest tourist attraction.
While wandering through the galleries, it became evident that we were never far from the outside, as many of the hallways were lined with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The mission is clearly stated, which is to celebrate the American spirit through unifying the power of art with the beauty of nature.
This explains the almost exclusive focus on American art, which is a distinctive characteristic of other art museums.
Another noticeable feature is the frequent use of the four-letter word, FREE. Because of Wal-Mart sponsorship, the entrance is free, parking and the parking shuttle are free, the iPod or Android audio tour apps are free, the use of loaner headphones and iPods are free, as well as a free school tour program with free transportation and free lunches.
There are only a few events for which a small fee is charged, such as the temporary exhibits, a professional development program for teachers, and single-day or multi-day art classes for babies through 13 years old. It is clear that one of the goals is to make the museum accessible to as many as possible.
The Inside Art
The 400-piece permanent art collection, valued at over $500 million dollars, covers five centuries and is arranged chronologically in four separate galleries: Colonial to Early 19th Century Art, Late 19th Century Art, 20th Century Art, and 1940’s to Now.
Along with the permanent collection, there are temporary exhibitions on display. One of the most impressive, when we visited, was Chihuly in the Forest. This unique exhibit was a perfect illustration of the museum’s mission of blending the power of art with the beauty of nature.
Placed in and around the one-mile North Forest Trail was the striking and colorful glass artwork by Dale Chihuly. Costs for this and other special exhibitions are usually around $10 per person.
By most standards, the museum would not be considered large, which makes it easy to navigate in one long afternoon. Perhaps because the museum is relatively new, or perhaps by design, most of the galleries feel relaxing, warm and somewhat refreshing.
I am not qualified to comment on the specific art, but, having been through enough art museums in the past, I know that when I see names such as Cassatt, Sargent, Rockwell, Warhol, Pollack, Winslow, O’Keeffe, et al., I am in a room full of masterworks from historically significant American artists.
While we stood in line at the museum restaurant, Eleven, named after the museum’s opening day (11/11/11), I asked a Bentonville local how Crystal Bridges had impacted her.
With immediate pride and smiling eyes, she responded, “My east coast relatives no longer make fun of me. We are now on the map.”
The Outside Art
Unlike most world-class museums, the outside space is designed to be as much a part of the experience as the inside. Leading from the north and south entrances is a meandering chain of trails, nearly 4 miles in length, set in a picturesque Ozark forest. Most of the trails are wheelchair accessible and are enjoyed by over 300,000 visitors a year.
The most popular is the Art Trail, with 12 sculptures along the half-mile walkway, again combining art and nature. We walked the entire trail and both of us agreed that our favorite was Stella, a smiling bronze pig weighing in at 560 pounds and usually seen with one to three children riding her.
We then took the Crystal Spring Trail and soon stumbled upon a house — not just any house — but a house many consider a work of art. The Bachman-Wilson house was built specifically for Gloria and Abraham Wilson in 1954 in Milestone, New Jersey.
The designer and builder was none other than the renowned and innovative architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 2013, Crystal Bridges acquired the house and then documented it, piece by piece, took it apart and reassembled it on museum grounds in 2015…a massive undertaking, indeed. A free self-guided tour is available every day except Tuesday, and guided tours are available for $10 per person.
“Family-friendly” was the phrase that came to mind repeatedly while spending the day at Crystal Bridges. The comprehensive children’s Experience Art Studio and the school tour program clearly demonstrated this culture, but we were very surprised that the guards posted in each of the rooms and along the trails epitomized this family welcoming attitude.
We are all familiar with those stiff, stern looking museum guards, watching and waiting for us to accidentally brush up against a painting or even whisper too loudly. It is not so with these guards, and I truly hesitate to call them “guards”.
They greeted us with smiles, engaging us and our 5-year-old grandson in conversation, asking about our hometown and how long we were staying in Arkansas. Some discussed specific art pieces. Some even walked and talked with us along the trail.
More evidence of this family focus is the close proximity to Amazeum, a state-of-the-art museum for children and families. Initially funded by Eric Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart, these hands-on exhibits are specifically designed to engage the imagination and to bring art and science to life. Cost is $9.50 for kids and adults and free for kids under 2 years old.
After our visit to Crystal Bridges, I can honestly say that I have never seen a high-quality art museum with such a dramatic integration of art with nature. I have also never experienced one with such a welcoming attitude, especially to the entire family, and all with no cost to the visitor.
I cannot answer whether Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas should be listed among the world’s top art destinations, but I do highly recommend visiting. I consider it an unqualified “must-see”, even for those only casually interested in art…or nature…or both.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
600 Museum Way
Bentonville, AR 72712
Saturday & Sunday 10am – 6pm
Monday 11am – 6pm
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 11 am – 9 pm
Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Crystal Bridges trails and grounds are
open from sunrise to sunset daily.
1009 Museum Way
Bentonville, AR 72712
Adults & Kids – $9.50
Kids under 2 years – Free
Monday 10am – 5pm
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday 10 am – 5 pm
Sunday 1pm – 5pm
Visiting Bentonville, Arkansas