World-class art museums are generally situated within the busy urban centers of the globe where the glitz of city life adds to their panache.
New York, for instance, has the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim.
Washington has the Hirshhorn Museum.
There’s the famous Art Institute of Chicago.
In Los Angeles, it’s the LACMA while in the Midwest it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art.
So when I told people I was headed to the hills of Arkansas to visit one of the nation’s premiere places to view American art, they looked at me in general astonishment – all except those already familiar with this captivating museum.
For you see, it’s not New York or Washington or Chicago, Los Angeles or even Cleveland that can claim this collection of American masterworks – it’s Bentonville, Ark., and the institution is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
In the halls of a stunning building designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the artistry of Native Americans is displayed next to works by John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol – giving insights into the vast scope of American creative endeavors.
In fact, the inclusiveness Crystal Bridges has shown in amassing its collection – including numerous pieces by artists of color and women – prompted the Washington Post to conclude that this may be the most “woke” museum in the United States today.
Although this smallish museum doesn’t offer the grand-scale collections of which these other museums boast, it is nonetheless astonishing that this museum exists at all amid the gentle hills and burbling streams of the Ozarks.
Because this was the home of the Waltons of Walmart fame. It was here that Alice Walton, the daughter of the retail giant founder, Sam Walton, wanted to situate her world-class museum showcasing American art.
A long-time lover of the arts, Walton wanted to give the region’s residents a chance to experience the arts in a spectacular setting – in the same way residents of the nation’s urban centers could acquaint themselves with the arts within a Guggenheim or LACMA.
Walton also was determined that the “her” museum combine the power of art with the beauty of nature. What better place to do that, she reasoned, than the Ozark hill country where the clear springs seeping from the mountainsides would give the museum its name.
She conceived of her hometown museum as one that would make art accessible to everyone.
There is no entrance fee charged to view the museum or surrounding grounds. General admission to the museum is sponsored by Walmart and over $300 million of the museum’s initial costs were donated by Walton herself.
The museum opened in 2011 and since then it has welcomed nearly 4 million visitors.
A visit to Crystal Bridges shows that Walton has certainly achieved her goals.
The spectacularly designed museum is nestled among the rolling woodlands of Northwestern Arkansas and a series of well-maintained trails on the ground take visitors through gardens themselves replete with artworks.
Nestled within the museum’s 120 acres are also two architectural pieces that visitors can tour. The first, a dome structure created by American designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller and the second, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home moved to museum grounds from New Jersey in 2015.
The museum building itself – built of concrete, glass and cedar with a roof of brown copper – rises from the bedrock of the surrounding hills as if it’s an organic part of the landscape. Much of it sits atop a spring-fed pond, the museum’s two main sections joined by glassed-in bridges over the water.
Walton was so concerned that the natural landscape be conserved and integrated into the building’s design that she insisted the builder refrained from clearing any trees from the site unless absolutely necessary. At one point she even instructed the architect to alter his original plan to allow for the preservation of a pair of tulip popular trees – named “Thelma and Louise” – that towered over the spring-fed pond.
The Walmart heiress’ next job was to amass the collection that would be housed and exhibited within her new museum. Over the years, the museum has added hundreds of works of art to its collection.
Those works, as well as other loaned to Crystal Bridges through its relationships with other museums, are exhibited within the museum on a rotating basis.
As part of the museum’s mission to “celebrate the American spirit” in relation to the art produced on this country’s shores, great care is taken to make connections between artists and history. Exhibitions often pair work done within similar time frames to show the types of art being produced contemporaneously by various cultural groups within the United States.
Innovative methods of exploring the art are also employed. Visitors may, for example, take advantage of a free audio tour of the exhibits but are also invited to access especially created videos, audio presentations and even cell phone apps to enhance their exploration.
Temporary exhibits are mounted throughout the year at Crystal Bridges.
A glance at the museum’s website, crystalbridges.org, shows that 2019’s special exhibitions include showings that focus on the intersection of art and the environment as well as connections between art and crystals and gems.
The museum also hosts a variety of events each year ranging from children’s art classes to demonstrations by featured artists to musical presentations. All are listed on its website.
In recognition of her philanthropy Walton was recognized in 2012 by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Her contribution to the art world was summarized by Don Bacigalupi, head of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, arguably one of this nation’s most innovative museum directors.
“The impact of Crystal Bridges has begun to be felt in Arkansas and in our nation,” he said. “It is wonderful and appropriate that Alice Walton receive this mention in recognition of her vision and ability to transform our views of American art, culture and history.”
That vision is on display today at the museum that Walton worked so tenaciously to found.
So, if you’ve never thought about going to the hills of Arkansas to see art … maybe it’s time you did.
Crystal Bridges – and Alice Walton – have transformed this rural section of the country into a destination worthy of travel.