Alice Walton's decision to plant the next great American art museum in northwest Arkansas is more calculated and shrewd than the casual critic might think. Bentonville, home to the world headquarters of Wal-Mart, is surrounded by international business. Shortly before his death in 1992, Sam Walton established that anybody - ANYBODY - wanting to do business with Wal-Mart should have a venue within twenty miles of Bentonville. As a result, the Northwest Arkansas region (Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville) has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the entire country over the past two decades. And this is not just due to the success of Wal-Mart: J.B. Hunt Transportation and Tyson Chicken headquarters also reside in Northwest Arkansas. The faithfulness and generosity of these businesses is indispensable both to the state of Arkansas and to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, which, during my freshman year of college, received from the Waltons the largest monetary gift ever given to a state university. From a business perspective, Northwest Arkansas is not something to sniff at.
|Roxy Paine, Yield (stainless steel)|
|Central entrance from above|
|Crystal Bridges Restaurant and Cafe|
There is more to this investment than just a business model, or the desire to give Southerners and midwesterners a cultural gift that many have been craving. Ms. Walton also understands the beauty and synergy of culture and nature; she believes that Northwest Arkansas offers a seamless vision of both. Crystal Bridges is not just an art museum: it is a botanical garden, a trailhead, a juxtaposition of art with nature, a belief that art is nature and vice versa. Surrounding the museum are miles of trails that cut through the Arkansas Ozarks. Native plants and trees line the area and little streams and waterfalls wind their way through the nooks and crannies of this ancient region. Natural stone has been cut into footbridges, stairs, and occasional seating areas along the trails. The trees are tall and slender here, and native ferns blanket the sloping hillsides. In Arkansas' temperate climate, you can make out early-blooming witch hazel. In a month or two, dogwood blossoms will begin to appear. And through the tree branches, through the waterfalls, bluffs, and streams, you can see the graceful archways of Crystal Bridges' gallery tops.
|Arkansas Cedar with exposed screws|
The museum's entrance is unlike anything I have ever seen. The architect, Moshe Safdie, designed Crystal Bridges to have the opposite effect of the classical museum. In a traditional museum, one ascends a flight of stairs to enter the exhibits, indicating the elevated experience of art and the contrast between the artistic world and the banal human existence. All very well and fine. But at Crystal Bridges, the parking areas and entrances are at the top. Museum goers descend into the galleries, which are built as literal bridges over the area of Crystal Springs. This design creates a horizontality between art and art-goer; it reverses the museum experience to very much honor the viewers as well as the art viewed. And everywhere along the way, peeking out from between the beams of natural Arkansas cedar that graces every ceiling and hallway panel, museum goers get glimpses of the rural Arkansas Ozarks that was the inspiration for this very building.
|18th century gallery|
|Early 19th century gallery|
|Crystal Bridges Restaurant and Cafe|
|Crystal Springs trailhead|
What better way to emerge from this experience than into the brilliant, sunny landscape of the Arkansas Ozarks? The natural beauty of Crystal Bridges' grounds allows for introspection, reflection, and continuation of thought about the artwork, and I personally find this more rewarding than being dumped on the city street looking for the subway. I will be thinking of Crystal Bridges for many weeks to come, and I'm already planning my next visit. Alice Walton is working on acquiring more Georgia O'Keefe, among other works, so the permanent exhibit will continue to change and grow. For now, Crystal Bridges ranks up there with every amazing museum experience I have ever had - on equal par with the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery in London, or the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Crystal Bridges firmly settles into the philosophy that art is not about number of collections or famous paintings, but about the human experience. It is our reaction to art that makes art special, and when that reaction is constructed on equal par with nature and sense of place, then it is an experience very well spent.
|Gallery and Restaurant, late afternoon|