When something takes your breath away
it is hard to talk about, you trip over your own words in a rush of
enthusiasm and excitement. That's how I feel now trying to share
our experience of Crystal Bridges American Art Museum
in Bentonville, Arkansas.
When Alice Walton decided to build a museum dedicated to American Art she set the staid art world on fire by purchasing some very expensive and highly collectible pieces. There was a wave of disbelief and outright snobbery when connoisseurs discovered these jewels were headed to Bentonville. As in Arkansas. Really? The torrents of criticism and horror only fueled Ms Walton's goals. Fortunately it was this bro-ha-ha that put the locale on my radar and as soon as I had the opportunity I headed in that direction. I will never do it justice so please, just see it for yourself.
When Walton shared her plans with the family (heirs to the Sam Walton of Walmart fortune) they urged her to use the land near their hometown referred to as "the farm." She wasted no time in hiring famed architect Moshe Safdie who sketched out his ideas on a napkin during what he thought was an interview.
Work began in haste taking 5 years, 45,000 cubic yards of concrete (all poured at night and then hand sanded), 20,000 feet of heartwood red cedar and a temporary rerouting of the Crystal River which now flows through the design. Attention to the setting was paramount as art is distributed throughout the many acres of wooded land. (They even bought, dismantled and reassembled an entire classic Frank Lloyd Wright home on the grounds.)
I'll try to share just a few of my "wows" about this incredible museum:
1- the building and the outdoors are seamless. You never feel like nature is far away. You know that claustrophobic feeling you sometimes get in a huge museum when you feel "trapped" and can't find the exit? Not here. Gorgeous trees, water, sky and even artwork is only a glance away.
2- the collection is alive, well and growing. Obviously there is a "permanent collection" (so large that much of it must be archived in underground vaults) but staff is committed to bringing in new shows and cutting edge experiments. As Art & Design put it:
"The collection has an appealing aesthetic populism, which is to say that different paintings provide points of entry for different levels of sophistication, and their groupings offer the immediate means to sharpen that sophistication as you move from work to work."
even the Washington Post calls it "the most woke museum..." enjoy the review here.
3- Alice Walton's mission of bringing art education to the masses is clear throughout. I found the wall explanations, the art labels, and the computer screen interactives to greatly enhance the experience.
Docent talks were scheduled daily and often...I took advantage of two where I also learned (following a crowd of active students) that any school within a three hour trip of the museum could request and receive a free trip (meaning the museum will pay for the bus, the driver, a substitute teacher if needed and lunch on the grounds for any class of visitors). So far 47,000 students have come via this offering AND they are cooperating with a U of Arkansas study to tract and document how such exposure to arts impacts the students overall education. Incredible.
from one of the specially curated shows on black & white art
Another special show was called "Soul of a Nation, art in the age
of black power." The many-paged guide to that show offered
stories, photos and even a reading list for further study.
4- plan multiple days. Silly us. Scheduled just a one day visit. (Did I mention that Walmart pays the entry fee for everyone?) Realizing we'd never see it all my husband and I parted ways to cherry pick to our hearts desire. I took two tours (one on "Women in Art." The collection has a higher percentage of women artists than you will find elsewhere). Thus I did not get through all the galleries and barely scratched the outdoor trails. Hubs reports the outdoor trails and art were amazing. I would have liked two full days and could have enjoyed three (yes, I'm hard core).
sculpture, that's me inside it to give some scale!
a contemporary room of art on cloth
5- eat, drink, learn and be merry. Probably forgot to mention the huge on-site library where you are invited to study or research and the entire wing of classrooms for teaching. Oh my. And I once had a goal of eating (!?) in all the major art museums of the world. So decided to try "Eleven" for lunch. Limited but very creative menu in a lovely glass-lined space overlooking the river. No disappointment.
But the real treat was later on...tired feet, sore legs, brain on overload, I still didn't want the day to end. I noticed that "Eleven" was dressing up in white linen and an "afterwork" crowd was slowly gathering. Yep, we shared a bottle of wine and an appetizer while reviewing our day. We were both impressed over how friendly and open all the volunteers and employees seemed to be. It was a "come back" for both of us.
As our adorable, chatty waiter was discussing wines, he paused to ask how we had heard about the museum. He had lived in Bentonville most of his life and here we were from NC and headed out west. Well, I confessed, my interest was piqued when all the controversy arose about the crazy Walton heir gathering up all the best art to take to the "middle of nowhere" in Arkansas. He could have been offended but he laughed. "You know," he said, "that story has been the best advertising ever. Alice is an amazing woman, she comes in here like any other guest. Isn't this a great place?"
I have to agree with him.
Put it on your list.
PS - I forgot to tell you why the restaurant was named "Eleven." It was because the museum officially opened on November 11 in 2011....at 11 a.m. So...11/11/11 at 11. Fun, huh?