If you have an interest in American art and history, you have likely heard of the greatest art museum and collection built in the U.S. in recent memory. Located in the small Arkansas town of Bentonville, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (as well as the surrounding grounds and nearby town) give new meaning to the term “art environment.” On the weekend of April 15 to 17, a group of MMFA patrons, docents, and staff set off to explore this amazing destination. And, while it’s not an easy spot to access (either by air or land), it is well worth the journey. Pictured is the group at the Cooper Memorial Chapel (front to back, left to right): Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, Connie Morrow, Emilie Reid, Connor Carraway, Jim Barganier, Pete Land, Bill Little, Joan Loeb, Jane Barganier, Liz Land, Mary Lil Owens, and Alice Novak.
Just a bit of background. The concept of constructing a museum of American art in Bentonville was the brainchild and mission of Alice Walton, who is the daughter of Walmart, Inc. founder Sam Walton. Bentonville was the small-town home of the original store, and it remains the site of the corporate headquarters. Alice and her siblings were raised in Bentonville, and they spent their childhoods playing on the nearby property that has been converted into Crystal Bridges (named for Crystal Spring that traverses the landscape.) Many in the art world power centers were bemused by this Southerner’s determination to purchase a collection of great American art (from scratch) and donate it to a public institution in rural Arkansas. However, art tourists from all over the country are now making the pilgrimage to experience the remarkable result. At the outset, Alice Walton proceeded to allocate her own funds, and raise other funds necessary, to create what is today a magnificent collection, with great works of art from the 18th to the 21st centuries. The MMFA group enjoyed discussions of only a fraction of the masterpieces in the collection including Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits and Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter.
The art in Crystal Bridges is chronologically installed in a structure designed around water by the Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie. Sited in the midst of acres of what can best be described as “landscaped woodlands,” a visit to Crystal Bridges is an experience of both artistic and natural beauty. There are 3 miles of trails that allow the visitor to experience an assortment of flowering trees, plants, and outdoor sculpture. The museum grounds are also home to a Sky Space installation titled The Way of Color (2009) by the artist James Turrell, and a re-located Usonian home, The Bachman-Wilson House (1954) by Frank Lloyd Wright, both of which the group enjoyed during the weekend.
The group stayed at the 21c Museum Hotel located off the square in downtown Bentonville. The hotel hosts changing exhibitions of contemporary art, and the creative environment extends to the excellent food in the hotel restaurant, the Hive. From 21c it’s a pleasant 20-minute walk through the woodlands to the museum. An additional excursion to E. Fay Jones’ Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel continued the theme of stunning art and architecture in the natural setting of Northwest Arkansas.
Like a fine jewel nestled in an equally precious setting, it is the collection of American art that draws the visitor to Crystal Bridges, and the centerpiece of any visit will be the works of art on view in the Museum’s chronological installation. Alice Walton’s vision was to create a collection of great works (which of course these days requires expenditures in the millions of dollars) with a far reaching educational mission, and she and the museum staff have made that vision a reality. Featuring an assemblage ranging from Colonial and Federal portraits by painters such as John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart, to twenty-first century installation works by sculptors such as Louise Bourgeois and Felix Gonzales-Torres, the collection rivals those of the major art museums in America—and it’s still growing.
We thank those that joined us for this adventure: Jane and Jim Barganier, Liz and Pete Land, Joan Loeb, Connie Morrow and her son Connor Carraway, Mary Lil Owens and Bill Little, and Emilie Reid. We also thank Alice Walton, whose passion for American art and her hometown have created the ultimate synthesis of art and nature in America’s heartland.
Curator of Education
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Curator of Paintings and Sculpture