Awe-inspiring. Gorgeous. Amazing. And these are just the impressions that came to mind before I even crossed the threshold of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The whole idea of going to Bentonville, Ark.–located approximately 110 miles from Tulsa, Okla., 216 miles from Little Rock, Ark., and 235 miles from Kansas City, Mo.–emerged from seeing an intriguing, in-depth feature about the Crystal Bridges Museum on “CBS Sunday Morning” a few days before it opened on Aug. 11, 2011, or 11.11.11, a motif that is carried out in the name of its restaurant–Eleven–which we’ll talk about in a bit.
The interviewer was exploring the museum with its founder, Alice Walton, daughter of the late Walmart founder Sam Walton, whose family has been the driving force behind Bentonville’s development since 1950 when the family moved there. From the jaw-dropping architecture to the stunning Ozark landscape into which the museum was flawlessly melded and the artwork, we just sat in front of the TV and said, “Wow! We’ve got to go there!”
Where art, nature and love meet
If the numbers are any indication–300,000 visitors coming through their doors within just the first six months (pre-opening estimates were for well below that for the first year)–coupled with rave press reviews from Travel + Leisure magazine, the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others, then you get the idea that the Crystal Bridges Museum has already joined the echelons of the most significant museums in the world.
Designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie–think the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga.; the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo.; the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, British Columbia; and the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, just to name a few–the name for the museum came from its setting, a natural spring called Crystal Spring that now flows on a wooded site on the property and feeds into the museum’s charming ponds.
Unlike perhaps any other museum of this scale in the world, the setting is what truly brings it all together. Set in a valley bowl amid towering trees, verdant native plants and flowers and awe-inspiring natural Ozark rock formations, there are two ways to approach the museum: along the vehicle road to the grand main entrance and parking garage or via the enchanting 1.5 mile, multi-use Crystal Bridges Trail.
The trail meanders from downtown and other parts of the surrounding residential areas, gently plopping you into the 120-acre museum park encompassing impressive sculptures and a picturesque museum overlook. I can’t impress upon you enough how stunning the setting is at both day and night–and yes, we came back twice; it was so captivating.
There are six others trails–paved, crushed granite and gravel–and a spectacular overlook on the property as well, each exuding a different aspect and flavor and flair of the Ozark environment. Among them is the Art Trail, which features an amphitheater and several, beautiful outdoor sculptures.
This trail also is where you will find “Skyspace: The Way of Color,” a naked-eye viewing chamber open to the sky that, from dusk to dark, features an energizing computer-programmed LED display that emits a range of colors that reflect differently against the sky and walls of the structure’s circular chamber constructed of native Arkansas stone and Kansas limestone.
Architectural and artistic genius
The architectural design created by Safdie is awe-inspiring, encompassing two suspended cable and wood structures across a ravine that look like massive, bronze footballs. Their positioning is at opposite ends of one of the two ponds and they also function as dams over the ravine. The Great Hall here is a third of the stunning structures, used as a multipurpose public space.
Once inside, the first thing to catch my eye was, believe it or not, the ebullient docents wearing casual khaki-colored pants, long-sleeved white shirts and avocado-hued ties, which exuded a relaxing, very welcoming yet still professional ambiance that really let us know we were in for a very different museum experience.
The architecture here is simply amazing at every turn: countless floor-to-ceiling glass walls revealing the interior and outdoor walkways, ponds, landscaping and adjacent structures; grand ceiling heights; expansive exhibit spaces; and striking solid and contrasting paint hues.
One of the most appealing aspects is the gracefully curvilinear walls in some of the galleries, which lend to a feeling of movement as you move among the fabulous works of art, allowing visitors to gain a much different view and introspection than simply looking at a work head-on.
The museum’s focus is on American masterworks, reflected in its permanent collection spanning five centuries from the Colonial era to the present day, and a large number of its holdings are from the personal collection of Alice Walker, who is passionate about preserving art that depicts our America.
Contemporary works exhibited here include those of Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Asher B. Durand and Kerry James Marshall, among numerous others.
Walton is so passionate and committed to the educational and cultural development of northwest Arkansas and to exposing people to great American artworks that the museum is free, making it accessible to all who want to learn, explore and enjoy.
Time for a Nosh
In a glass-enclosed bridge overlooking the ponds, you’ll find Eleven, the museum’s coffee bar and in-house, casual, order-at-the-counter cafe at lunch and upscale restaurant at night.
Again, unlike your typical museum cafe-restaurants, the cuisine here is a step above–fresh, wholesome and innovative, encompassing Midwestern and Southern comfort food specialties created with produce and other items from local farmers and food artisans.
Among the many savory and delectable items on the menu are an award-winning chicken salad sandwich, beans and cornbread, an Ozark-style margherita pizza, shrimp and grits (this dish was delicious!), a variety of tasty salads, pan-roasted salmon, a beef filet, burgers and a handful of vegan dishes. If you care to enjoy a meal on the grounds instead, picnic lunches are available seasonally as well.
This is just the beginning of our exploration of Bentonville, Ark. And there are so many more exciting things to come.
Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau: 479-271-9153, www.bentonville.org
- Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art: 479-418-5700, www.crystalbridges.org
- Eleven Restaurant at the Crystal Bridges Museum: 479-418-5700