One of America’s great buildings – and great art museums – is tucked in the northwest corner of the Arkansas Ozarks. From a fortune built on a discount empire, Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has taken an impressive chunk of her wealth to give an amazing gift to a region of the country situated far away from major cultural centers. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art draws art lovers from all over the world to view world-class art and architecture in this bucolic setting.
A long-time art lover, Walton visited museums including the Amon Carter in Ft Worth and the Getty in Los Angeles to analyze the flow of visitors through the institutions; to observe how buildings were integrated with their sites and to discover how museums can provide community gathering places. At the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, she became acquainted with the architectural design of Moshe Safdie, who had created, over three decades and four construction phases, a collection of buildings built into the rugged foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. His choices exemplified the incorporation of architecture and nature that she wanted for her future museum.
And she got it. Crystal Bridges is nestled in a ravine among rolling hills. The contours or the roofs echo the topography. Safdie used a variety of natural materials – many allowing weathering which blends into the natural landscape.
The buildings, a series of pavilions around two spring-fed ponds, make maximum use of light, filtering through windows and openings in the roofs. Views from different parts of the museum encompass water, woods and art work.
Entering the museum through the main entrance from the upper parking level, guests take an elevator down two levels to the main lobby. There’s another level below that, and, I guess, one above to lower parking. It left me totally confused and I wound up riding the elevator quite a while before I finally figured out where I needed to exit!
The courtyard between the elevator, museum store and the entrance to the main lobby is presided over by a giant arachnid. French-American sculptor, Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010) created it as homage to her mother. You might think a spider is an odd choice for a tribute but the artist considered spiders protective and industrious, traits she admired in her parent.
The lobby features the usual admission and information desks. The entrance to the exhibit areas is on the right. Straight ahead is a coffee bar and the museum restaurant, Eleven. Cuisine here is described as High South using as many local and sustainable products as possible. May of the traditional foods offered are treated in ways very different from those of my Ozark ancestors. I recognized the biscuits and gravy on the brunch menu and the beans and cornbread for lunch. Dinner offerings are a little more exotic – I’m pretty sure my grandmother never fixed pork cheeks with black vinegar and smoky miso-bean pudding. I am sure I would enjoy it. Food here is excellent and reasonably priced.
But the main attraction is, of course, the art. On my first visit, art was displayed chronologically – very traditional. On my latest visit, things have been shuffled – one thing you can expect here is change – the museum has a large collection and displays are kept fresh so you can see something different each time you visit. This visit, galleries were organized thematically with such juxtapositions as a contemporary Fritz Scholder Native American near Charles Willson Peale’s classic George Washington. Crystal Bridges keeps you thinking!
Another gallery was labeled “Notions of Beauty/Nostalgia.” Here artwork was displayed in the manner of a Paris Salon exhibition. Works of favorite American artists like John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt and Andy Warhol were displayed here.
Not all the art is inside the museum. While the main architectural exhibit is the museum itself, the collection includes a complete Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house. Carefully documented and disassembled, the structure was rebuilt on the museum grounds. Wright, like Safdie after him, considered the relationship between site and structure important.
Until I read the museum brochure, I thought the term Usonian referred to utilitarian aspects. Houses like the one at Crystal Bridges were created during the Great Depression. They were designed for the middle class and were characteristically small and modestly priced. All that’s true, but apparently Wright coined the term from United States of North America – almost an acronym.
The Crystal Bridge grounds cover 120 acres. On the property, there are seven hiking trails ranging from a quarter of a mile to 1.4 miles. Five feature hard surfaces; the other two are crushed gravel. Art works are scattered throughout the grounds.
A current favorite on the Art Trail is Dale Chihuly’s Turquoise Reeds and Ozark Fiori. This is one of five works recently purchased by the museum. They had been part of a 2017 exhibition here and are now part of the permanent collection.
It’s approximately a three-and-a-half hour drive to Bentonville from Edmond. Crystal Bridges is is closed on Tuesdays and certain holidays. There is no charge for admission. Check the web site for special exhibitions and events: www.crystalbridges.org. Bentonville is a great spot for a weekend getaway. For more art, stay at the 21C Museum Hotel. While in town, check out the Museum of Native American History and the Walmart Museum.