Odysseeing

Bentonville AR and the Crystal Bridges Museum

When Maureen told our friend Craig about our general snowbirding route south, he suggested we check out the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on our way through Arkansas. I was generally aware of the museum, but until he mentioned it I hadn’t thought of making it a stop. We’re really glad we did!

We stayed at the Blowing Springs RV Park in Bella Vista, just 15 minutes from the museum. Other than setting up camp in the rain, we really enjoyed this campground by a babbling brook and rolling hills of the retirement community of Bella Vista.

Crystal Bridges is the brainchild of Alice Walton, a WalMart heiress. She has long been interested in art, and so decided to use some of her estimated $34B net worth to build a world-class art museum and fill it with world-class American art. Seems like a worthy use of the funds, if you ask me.

The museum opened November 11, 2011 (somebody likes “1’s”, I guess). Admission is free to the public, sponsored by WalMart. Mornings from 9-11 are open only to schoolchildren. This provides a great opportunity for kids of all backgrounds to enjoy fine art, while also – as perhaps an unintended benefit – providing a more “serene” art viewing experience for adults during the rest of the day.

The permanent collections, housed in 217,000 square feet of galleries include works by Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Cole, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and many, many others. A special exhibition devoted to Alfred Maurer is on view now. I was not familiar with this artist, and shame on me because his range of his styles and talent is obvious. The general curatorial approach seems to be this: provide a survey of strong representative pieces from a “Who’s Who” of major American artists, rather than explore individual artists in depth.

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The galleries are organized chronologically in four buildings, from the early to late nineteenth century, then the early and late twentieth century. As you make your way around the museum you cross the Town Branch Creek twice. Two of the buildings surround the creek on the upstream and downstream sides of a pond formed from small dams; the other two sides are bridges across the ponds.

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Architect Moshe Safdie has combined architectural concrete (polished smooth) with 84,000 pounds of copper roofing and horizontal cypress timbers to create a strong, sober, but organic-feeling modernist ensemble of buildings. The interiors are warm, with wooden floors and massive pine ribbing for the ceiling support. The entire structure of the galleries is held up with cabling much like a suspension bridge, allowing the windows to be completely free of obstruction. Four miles of nature trails and the natural landscaping provide almost as much reason to visit as the art.

We took a (highly recommended) architecture tour, and when I remarked to the docent that the curved shapes of the buildings’ roofs reminded me of a tortoise shell and an armadillo, he said, “that’s what the construction workers called them, too.”

Also recently opened on the museum property is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian-style Bachman Wilson house. Originally located in Millstone, NJ, the house had fallen into disrepair. As part of the deal to preserve the house, it was completely dismantled, shipped to Bentonville and reassembled on the grounds of the Crystal Bridges museum. Totally restored, it reopened only last month. We were fortunate to be one of the first to see it after its restoration.

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If you’re considering visiting, and certainly if you do, I strongly suggest downloading the Crystal Bridges app, which provides audio commentary and additional background on many of the works of art.

If I had one complaint about the museum, it is its dearth of photography. Although the museum owns part of the Stieglitz collection, it must be in storage or on tour. Alice, if you’re listening, please buy more photography! You can start with a few pieces from this artist if you like ☺.

Downtown Bentonville is actually quite charming. Old storefronts have been well preserved – most notably the original WalMart (Walton’s 5-10) and its associated museum. We didn’t have time to check out that museum, just the art museum. It might be worth seeing on a return trip.

But we did pay homage to Sam Walton by stopping at the nearby WalMart Supercenter (on Walton St) for groceries. We’re still figuring out our RV menus, but were happy to get a whole roasted chicken, baked potatoes, and some vegetables to last us a few days for not a lot of money.

We were amazed (maybe we shouldn’t have been) that at 6 pm the store was completely overrun by this town of about 35,000 people (a growth of more than 70% since 2000). There appeared to be many WalMart middle management types, including many Indian expatriate employees that were patronizing the “company store”. WalMart also appears to be using their home base to experiment with retail concepts I haven’t seen them try elsewhere, including a gas station, “neighborhood market” and express merchandise pickup lanes.

Is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art worth a special trip? It was on our way southwest, so it was easy to justify stopping by. It is relatively small, certainly compared to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but this makes it easy to see in a day without feeling rushed or that you have “missed something”. You really have time to contemplate the works. It was so sparsely attended that I could comfortably read the wall text without constantly having to edge around other museumgoers. The docents and guards were unfailingly polite and knowledgeable. I found the experience very reminiscent of the Getty Center in Los Angeles: a modern, polished art museum with fine architecture, beautiful grounds, and a distinguished collection. Just not as large as some others.

Should you go? All I can say is that, if you do, you’ll have a great time and see some great artwork that you can’t see anywhere else. We loved it.

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