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Arkansas Living April 2012 : Page-10

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Crystal Bridges: A New Arkansas Gem

Jack w. Hill

When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville last November to wide acclaim, it instantly became a lasting monument to Alice Walton, 62, the youngest child and only daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton.

It also became a major tourism attraction for the state, drawing far larger crowds than originally projected.

“As of the end of February, we had welcomed over 175,000 visitors to the museum,” says Amber Hendrickson, Crystal Bridges’ media relations manager. “We had projected approximately 77,500 visitors by the end of February.”

Though the museum appears to be in a rural, wooded area, it’s within walking distance of the downtown square in Bentonville – a northwest Arkansas town of 35,000 known primarily as the world headquarters of Walmart and as the location of Walmart founder Sam Walton’s original retail business. His first store, a “five and dime” located on the town square, was where young Alice Walton bought her first Work of art, a reproduction of Picasso’s famous “Blue Nude.”

Great art doesn’t come that cheap, so when Walton decided she was going to start a museum, the Walton Family Foundation gave $1.2 billion to the museum, and the Walmart Stores Inc. Foundation gave $10 million to cover the cost of free admission for the public for five years.

Walton began her future museum’s collection in 2004, bidding some $20 million over the phone, while on horseback, for the art collection of Daniel and Rita Fraad at Sothebys in New York. A year later, she hit the headlines when she purchased (for a reported $35 million) Asher Brown Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” an 1849 painting that had been given to the New York Public Library in 1904. She has gone on to buy works by Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer and two paintings by Alfred Maurer and Tom Wesselman with cigarettes as their subject, which prompted Walton to buy them, as she reportedly waged her own personal battle to quit smoking.

On May 12, Walton will receive an honorary Doctor of Arts and Humane Letters degree from the University of Arkansas in recognition of her lifetime of philanthropic achievements. When the honor was announced, Walton said, “I am humbled to be selected for this honor. The University of Arkansas has been a tremendous resource for our state both in educating its citizens and developing its economy. To be a part of this academic tradition is personally meaningful.”

After the museum opened, The New York Times hailed it as “the first major institution in 50 years dedicated to the vast spectrum of American art.”

Earlier this year, Walton – who as a child became interested in art as she painted watercolor landscapes with her mother, Helen – addressed students at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, explaining her thoughts on the founding of the museum.

“American art has not historically been viewed as important worldwide,” she said. “One of the things we hope is that we bring more recognition and help bring more scholarship to American art worldwide.”

Among the “don’t miss” pieces of art are Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, Norman Rockwell’s painting of Rosie the Riveter, Andy Warhol’s portrait of Dolly Parton and Roy Lichtenstein’s “Standing Explosion (Red).”

Children will also find delight in visiting the museum, thanks to some of the art works, including a 12-foot-tall Pinocchiolike enamel on wood statue, along with a huge stick horse and activities that include classes, workshops and family Sundays. And for art teachers, the Willard and Pat Walker charitable Foundation gave $10 million to enable students to visit the museum, providing reimbursements for travel by school groups and even including pay for substitute teachers who tend to those who cannot go on the trip to learn about art.

The museum’s first visiting exhibit,“The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision,” will open May 5 and be on view through Sept. 3. (Admission to the special exhibit will be $5, free for members of the museum and those under age 18) . The New York Historical Society is loaning the 45 works, which include landscape paintings by John F. Kensett, Albert Bierstadt, Jasper F. Cropseycq and Asher B. Durand. Another traveling exhibit, “New Frontier: Thomas Cole and the Birth of Landscape Painting in America,” coming from the Louvre in Paris, will open May 12 and be on display through Aug. 13.

Spanning five centuries of American art, the 12 galleries, which house 450 pieces of art, are located in four buildings: Colonial era art through 1860; paintings from 1865 to 1900; paintings from 1900 to 1945; and paintings from post-World War II to the present.

Boston architect Moshe Safdie, who was selected in 2005, designed the museum, and the construction site was dedicated in May 2007. Safdie made use of native Arkansas materials, including pine, to create a relaxed mixture of art and nature. The works of art are spread out over 201,000 square feet in the four buildings – more than 50,000 square feet of which is gallery space.

The pavilions are arranged so that they border or span a couple of large pools, fed by Crystal Spring, which lent its name to the museum.

Outside, the museum has as much to offer visitors as does the inside. There are 11 exterior sculptures to view, all dated between 1988 and 2011. The works include Paris (Ark.) Native George Dombek’s “Tour de Tree,” a bronze of an apple tree bearing branches and twigs in the form of a bicycle; Pulaski County resident Robyn Horn’s dyed redwood piece, “Already Set in Motion;” and Pat Musick and Jerry Carr’s “A Place Where They Cried,” native sandstone pieces from the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks, which represent the “Trail of Tears” American Indian removal that crossed Arkansas between 1837-49.

“LOVE,” Robert Indiana’s steel sculpture, was originally designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Christmas card in 1965, and the U.S. Post Office used the design for an eight-cent stamp in 1973. The sculpture was fabricated in 1999.

Six trails, ranging in length from 1/3 mile to 1 ½ miles, were built through the museum’s 120 acres, with different surfaces and either moderate or gentle slopes. Three of the trails also include steps. The Dogwood Trail, for instance, the longest of all the trails, at one mile, features 500 dogwood trees that flower during the spring. Another trail, the Tulip Tree Trail/Crystal Spring Trail, features a natural spring that feeds into the museum’s two pools.

One of the more pleasing aspects of the museum is the design that ignored the way most museums arrange their facilities so that visitors must exit through the gift shop. Crystal Bridges’ Museum Store does not require anyone to enter; rather, it has a distinct entrance that is not connected to the exit. In other words – enter if you wish to, perhaps to check out the prints of art you saw in the museum, to look for books about some of the art works in the collection or to view the original jewelry designs and basketry.

Marlon Blackwell, a professor and department head of the School of Architecture of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, designed the store so that the interior resembles the underside of a mushroom.

Free parking for the museum is plentiful and well designed, though some lots are distant from the entrance. Covered parking is more limited, and mostly meant for handicapped visitors. A checkroom offers free storage for those burdened with umbrellas, heavy coats, backpacks and the like. Some wheelchairs are available at no cost, as are audio tours pre-loaded onto iPods that can be checked out, plus there is a free Crystal Bridges app, available on the museum’s website or at the iTunes store. Free public tours can be arranged through the Guest Services Department.

A library on the third fl oor contains some 60,000 items on 3,000 linear feet of shelving. The library’s ceiling contains native yellow pine beams from Magnolia. While the library does not allow anyone to check out books, access is available through Millennium, a shared catalog with the University of Arkansas libraries, and through OCLC, a consortium of worldwide libraries. The library catalog can be accessed online at

As visitors meander through the gallery spaces, they will notice that there are areas in between galleries that are inviting spots to sit a spell in plush seating. There are also tables where you can sit and fl ip through the many books that are positioned here and there. The books are for those who wish to learn more about some of the artists or works of art they had just seen. And thanks to architect Safdie’s design, the beauty of the outdoor surroundings is also visible from these nooks.

The museum’s restaurant, Eleven, features cuisine from the South and Midwest created with food from local farmers and food artisans. It also offers beer, wine and boutique cocktails. Lunch is available daily (except Tuesdays) from 11 a. m. to 2 p.m.; dinner is served Wednesdays and Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m. Dinner reservations are recommended; call (479) 418-5700. A coffee bar, with sweet treats, is open daily until 6 p.m. Picnic lunches are available, seasonally, for those wishing to enjoy the outdoor grounds of the museum. To see the menu selections, see

Jack W. Hill is a freelance writer based in Bismarck

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