Crystal Bridges art museum is reshaping Wal-Mart’s hometown


BENTONVILLE, Ark. — To meet Gilbert Stuart’s “George Washington,” Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter,” Andy Warhol’s “Dolly Parton” and hundreds of other artworks less famous and more subtle, first fly to XNA.

That’s right, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Then drive 20 miles north, through farmland, forest and suburbs, to the home of the planet’s largest retailer.

That’s right, Bentonville. On Central Avenue, if it’s autumn, you’ll probably roll past 100-year-old houses under a dense canopy of fall colors. In the downtown square, you’ll pass the storefront where Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart empire was hatched as a five-and-dime in 1950.


Then the road dips into a woodsy ravine and a strange skeletal tree of gleaming silver rises from the grass. It’s a sculpture by Roxy Paine, announcing your arrival at the shimmering, occasionally perplexing Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Crystal Bridges, approaching its first birthday Nov. 11, is this country’s wealthiest, most ambitious new art museum. Thanks to its arrival, a visitor to northwestern Arkansas now finds a fascinating jumble of heartland scenery, small-town sensibility, global commerce and American art, along with a measure of irony. After raising big-box stores around the world — and being blamed by many for the decline of Main Street commerce across America — Wal-Mart and its founding family have relaunched their hometown’s downtown.

You might not guess this from the Wal-Mart home office on Southwest 8th Street, which shows all the ostentation and assertiveness of a suburban DMV office. But at least seven restaurants and a handful of food trucks have opened around the city’s central square in the last two years, and last year Wal-Mart spiffed up its visitor center here. An ambitiously artsy lodging, the 21c Museum Hotel, is due to open early next year. At the recently expanded Phat Tire Bike Shop in the old Hotel Massey building, you can rent a hybrid bike for two hours for $18.

“You’ve got a little pond, that being Bentonville, that already has a giant alligator lurking in it, that being Wal-Mart,” says Dayton Castleman, an artist, educator and bicycle shop salesman who moved here from Chicago during the summer. “And the museum is like dropping a 4-ton boulder in the middle of that pond. Kaboom!

“I think people are going to be studying what happens in Bentonville right now for years to come.”

I started with the downtown square: stately courthouse, immaculate flowering plants and a statue honoring James H. Berry, a Confederate officer who became Arkansas’ governor in the 1880s. On Saturdays, there’s a farmers market, and on some Friday nights, there are acoustic jam sessions.

Not long ago, Crystal Bridges museum director Don Bacigalupi likes to recall, his 6-year-old son pulled out his violin and joined the jammers.

“It’s an amazing experience,” Bacigalupi told me, “to be part of that indigenous culture even as all of this new culture is arriving.”

Good food too. I had excellent organic greens and ravioli at Tavola Trattoria; good guajillo salmon salad at Table Mesa Bistro; a restorative cup of iced coffee at the Pressroom; and a tangy BLT tartine (applewood-smoked pork belly with tomato chutney and arugula) at Tusk & Trotter. None of those restaurants existed five years ago.

The lodging options aren’t as varied, so far — too many chain hotels, not enough independents. But I liked the owners’ personal touches at the Laughlin House (opened 2011), a four-room bed-and-breakfast in an 1890s Victorian cottage a short walk from the square and Crystal Bridges. I also browsed the gallery space that the 104-room 21c Museum Hotel has set up as its advance office. (Another strong option to consider: the historic Inn at Carnall Hall, a former women’s dormitory on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, about 30 miles south.)

The Wal-Mart Visitor Center claimed me for about an hour with the authorized story of how founder Sam Walton conquered the retail world: After the five-and-dime in BentonviIle came other stores. In1962, he opened his first store with the Wal-Mart name in neighboring Rogers, Ark. In 1970, the company went public. In 1980, the company hit $1 billion in sales in a year. In 1993, it hit $1 billion in sales in a week. And now? More than $1 billion a day in net sales, with 2.2 million workers in 27 countries.

Once you venture beyond the square, it becomes clear that Bentonville is no sleepy Southern hamlet from Central Casting. It’s bigger than that (about 36,000 residents), having tripled its population since 1990. When you add neighboring areas, including Rogers (which has its own historic district), Fayetteville and Springdale, you have a metropolitan area of more than 460,000 residents.

It’s also whiter than I expected. In a state that’s about 16% black, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Benton County is just 1.9% African American. (For Beverly Hills, the number is 2.2%.) Yet Bentonville is increasingly worldly, thanks to Latino immigrants and the international corps of vendor representatives.

As Emmanuel Gardinier, general manager of the 21c Museum Hotel, likes to say (in his native French accent), “Bentonville is an international metropolis disguised as Mayberry.”

It’s less than a mile from the square to Crystal Bridges, which is surrounded by 120 carefully landscaped acres and several walking and biking trails.

Alice Walton, the Texas-based daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, founded it in 2005, spent untold millions on the building (the museum won’t release a number) and millions more on the art. In the run-up to the Crystal Bridges opening last year, the Walton Family Foundation contributed $800 million. Wal-Mart contributed $20 million and is credited as the sponsor of free general admission for all. Of course, not everyone was grateful.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Bloomberg View website, called the whole undertaking “a moral tragedy” and “a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else.” Meanwhile, Abigail R. Esman, writing on, asserted that “Ms. Walton has done everything absolutely right” amid “the whining of the so-called 99 percent.”

The property was designed by Moshe Safdie, the star architect who also worked on the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and features a chain of buildings with glass walls and organic curves, sitting atop two spring-fed ponds. There are several outdoor artworks, most notably a James Turrell installation aimed at the sky and a sculptural version of Robert Indiana’s much-reproduced “LOVE” design. Circling the complex, I shared trails with young mothers, prams, speeding cyclists, panting joggers and a family of deer.

Inside, Crystal Bridges covers five centuries with a mostly chronological layout, so you begin with Stuart’s “George Washington” in the colonial galleries. You wind up with contemporary works such as Nick Cave’s playful “Soundsuit” sculpture and an oversized, eerily detailed 2010 bust by Evan Penny titled “Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be.”

Among the 450 or so works in between, you find a collection that hits just about every note, from the populist touch of Warhol’s “Dolly Parton” to the implicit racial politics of Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Our Town.”

The challenge in building and showing off the collection, Bacigalupi said, is establishing a reputation as a serious institution while welcoming newcomers who’ve never stepped into a museum. Whether it’s management training or native Arkansan hospitality, I don’t know, but I encountered several disarmingly friendly museum guards and shop clerks at Crystal Bridges.

In a largely admiring review in the New York Times last year, art critic Roberta Smith said the museum “could become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.” Smith’s only complaints about the collection were the absence of pre-1900 folk art and the handful of big-name artists, including Jackson Pollock, who are represented now by minor paintings that don’t match their mature work. But with $325 million earmarked for art acquisitions, Crystal Bridges is so well poised to grow that it makes people nervous.

Just last week, the museum was to unveil a newly acquired Mark Rothko. Some New Yorkers are still smarting over Crystal Bridges’ 2005 purchase of the New York Public Library’s Asher B. Durand painting “Kindred Spirits” for a reported $35 million. And it took a long court battle for the museum to buy a half-interest in Fisk University’s coveted Stieglitz Collection. Opponents didn’t want the works to leave Fisk in Nashville, but under the deal, the 101 works can now alternate between the institutions, giving Crystal Bridges a chance to display major works such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s iconic painting of Manhattan’s Radiator Building at night.

Anyway, it’s easy and rewarding to spend hours with the art at Crystal Bridges. And I recommend the green couch near the Abstract Expressionists as a fine place to rest a spell.

My only quibble is that Safdie was so eager to dazzle us with the play of sunlight bouncing off the ponds that it can distract from the art itself. Also, all those glass walls have surely reduced the amount of space in which light-sensitive artworks can be placed. Basically, my indoors experience had a little too much outdoors in it.

That said, my outdoors experience the next day was fun. I zipped into the Ozarks on eastbound Highway 62, passing Pea Ridge National Military Park (where North beat South in a crucial Civil War battle) and the Anglers Grill at Beaver Lake (where the all-you-can-eat catfish special is $17.95).

On the outskirts of Eureka Springs, I stopped at Thorncrown Chapel, a 48-foot-tall glass-walled structure by Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones that often turns up on architects’ lists of America’s “best” buildings. I also had a quick look at Eureka Springs, a 19th century resort town that has evolved into a hippie-artsy tourist haven of shops and galleries.

And in nearby Fayetteville, I walked the University of Arkansas campus, the Dickson Street night life district and the town’s downtown square, whose Saturday farmers market draws legions and has been honored by the American Farmland Trust.

Given another day, I’d have headed for the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale.

It’s too soon to say how much Crystal Bridges is going to change northwestern Arkansas, but the early numbers are interesting. Museum leaders, who forecast 300,000 visitors in its first year, got about 500,000 in the first nine months. About a quarter of them came from more than 50 miles away, like me. So the pilgrims are coming, but will they multiply or dwindle as novelty fades?

I was thinking about this on my last afternoon in Bentonville. I had headed back to the museum entrance to have another look at that gleaming silver tree. I was tiptoeing across the flawless lawn, camera in hand, in search of the ideal angle, when I head a museum guard say, “Excuse me, sir.”

Oh, well, I thought. I tried. And now I’ll be scolded and threatened with banishment, as the guides do every time I’m caught standing in the wrong place at the Norton Simon in Pasadena.

“Sir,” the guard continued, “are you the artist?” Then he grinned. “Because I’ve heard the artist comes around to photograph the tree. And I didn’t want to miss him.”

I hated to disappoint the guard. But more and more, I’m liking this idea of putting big museums in not-so-big cities.