By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
There is no doubt that the small-town feel of Bentonville and its non-coastal location belies the traditional ideals regarding where fine arts museums are found. But visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a premier art institution which opened here on 11-11-11, are finding that contradiction the appeal.
Crystal Bridges’ (www.crystalbridges.org) permanent collection features American masterworks dating from the Colonial era to contemporary times. It also displays a changing array of special exhibitions featuring art from museums and collections throughout the region, nation and abroad. In addition to exploring the unfolding story of America with outstanding works that illuminate this nation’s heritage and artistic possibilities, the museum also seeks to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of landscape.
“I think my first impression of the place is just the building itself. It’s the most beautiful structure,” said Norm Simon of Tulsa, who was visiting with his wife as well as his son and his family from Toronto. “The overall setting is striking. In big cities you are surrounded by big buildings. This park-like setting is phenomenal.”
Founded in 2005 by the Walton Family Foundation, the museum takes its name from a nearby natural spring and the bridge construction incorporated in the building design by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie. A series of pavilions nestled around two creek-fed ponds house galleries, meeting and classroom spaces, and a large, glass-enclosed gathering hall. Amenities include a café on a glass-enclosed bridge overlooking the ponds and a Marlon Blackwell-designed museum store. Sculpture and walking trails link the museum’s 120-acre park and gardens to picturesque downtown Bentonville.
Rob Simon has lived in large cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and currently Toronto. “It’s a rare privilege to get to access this quality of art. You don’t expect this in northwest Arkansas, right?” He added that he was also struck by seeing others’ reactions to seeing this caliber of art for the first time.
Museum acquisitions include: “Kindred Spirits,” Asher B. Durand; “George Washington,” Charles Willson Peale; “Rosie the Riveter,” Norman Rockwell; “Group of Bears,” bronze sculpture by Paul Manship at Compton Gardens trailhead leading to Crystal Bridges; and “The Way of Color,” skyspace by James Turrell on the Art Trail – just to name a very few.
Rob’s son Rami, 7, said his favorite pieces were the holograms. “If you looked from the corner you could see it straight in 3-D.” His brother Elan, 11, liked “the circle thing,” also known as “Big Red Lens”, 1985, Frederick Eversley. “You could see through it. It’s cool how you can look through the art and see what’s behind it and you can see it as an aspect of a piece of art.”
Crystal Bridges had more than 125,000 visitors in its first two months, said Laura Jacobs, director of communications. In order to track attendance, the museum asks guests to take a three-question survey: How did you hear about the museum; how many people are in your party, and what is your zip code. The museum is prepared for 250,000 –plus visitors annually.
If You Go
Jacobs recommends visitors wear comfortable shoes. Additionally, she said, “Plan to have lunch here and spend some time on the grounds.”
The grounds include more than three miles of trails rolling with the landscape through the native Ozark forest. They are meant to be as much a part of the experience of Crystal Bridges as the art inside. “That art and nature are both vital to the human spirit and should be accessible to all,” is part of the museum’s mission. The grounds and trails change with each season, and are open year-round.
Inside, Crystal Bridges offers public tours, self-guided tours and audio tours. Jacobs suggests people download the free Crystal Bridges app from the museum’s website or the iTunes store prior to their visit. Guest Services also checks out pre-loaded iPods with the tours. A photo ID is required. Headphones are encouraged in galleries and are available for purchase at Guest Services.
The museum also contains a museum store with a wide selection of books, gifts, jewelry, prints of works from the museum collection, and original works by regional artists. The library offers a large collection of art reference materials.
A limited number of wheelchairs are available for use on a first-come, first-served basis at no cost. Large items, including backpacks, tripods, and umbrellas are not allowed in the galleries and can be left in the checkroom. Complimentary wireless internet access is available.
Crystal Bridges has a lobby coffee bar; its restaurant, Eleven, offers lunch service daily and dinner on Wednesdays and Fridays. Reservations for dinner are recommended. Admission to the museum is free. Plan a trip by visiting www.crystalbridges.org or by calling 479-418-5700 for more information.
In the area
Bentonville may be considered a small community, but it is also the world headquarters for a major corporation, Walmart. Neighboring cities are anchored by Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and the University of Arkansas flagship campus. The area, sometimes referred to as the I-540 corridor, is well equipped for travelers with XNA airport, and numerous hotels, more of which are on the way.
Travelers can also visit the Walmart Visitor Center, located in Sam Walton’s original Bentonville variety store. Newly expanded and renovated, it contains exhibits tracing the origin and growth of Walmart stores and a coffee shop.
Visitors can enjoy national touring acts and performances at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. Located in the city’s entertainment district, it anchors popular Dickson Street lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and live music venues.
Springdale is home to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a minor league baseball team based at the new Arvest Ballpark. The team is a member of the Texas League and serves as the Double-A affiliate for the Kansas City Royals.
Rogers is known for its historic downtown Main Street, the Daisy Airgun Museum, restaurants, and upscale shopping malls.
Outdoor opportunities in the region include significant hiking and biking trails, and fishing and water sports on lakes and rivers.