When I heard about a new museum of American art opening in the Arkansas Ozarks, I had two equally shameful reactions.
I’ll confess: The coastal snob in me wondered what new collection could merit a trip to the deep American middle. Sure, the U.S. heartland and its erstwhile Rust Belt are peppered with world-class institutions — universities, symphony orchestras, art museums. But these are largely vestiges of more prosperous eras, when burgs like Kansas City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cleveland were vital centers of industry, before the cultural center of gravity shifted to the coasts. In Arkansas, I pictured a small, folksy museum full of blown glass and Grandma Moses-style paintings.
My other reaction was even more cynical. When I saw a photograph of the gorgeous building, designed by Moshe Safdie, I thought, here we go — another bid for tourism with stunning, big-name architecture and little worthwhile inside. I’ve been in plenty such museums in recent years.
But boy, am I eating humble pie now. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened last month, is arguably the most ambitious collection to hit the American art scene in at least a decade — and what’s inside is every bit as fulfilling as the stunning surroundings.
Inside Safdie’s glittering glass corridors and soaring white spaces is one of the finest existing collections of Colonial American portraiture and a landmark of American Jewish history.
Some readers may remember the series of early-18th-century portraits of the Levy-Franks clan — one of the first and most prominent Jewish families in the New World — that were exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York several years back. The entire set came from the Crystal Bridges collection, and in the new museum, visitors can take in Gerardus Duyckinck’s works — depicting not only a multigenerational German-Jewish lineage, but also a Revolutionary War-era family of means.
The Colonial period is strongly represented as well in important works by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart and the like. The giants of American Impressionism are well represented here — Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, Fairfield Porter — and 20th-century highlights of the collection include Marsden Hartley, Lyonel Feininger’s New York scenes, Thomas Hart Benton’s landscapes, and abstractions from Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky.
Pop Art from Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, and contemporary stars like Kara Walker and Jenny Holzer round out the permanent collection, making this a truly comprehensive overview of America’s first four centuries.
All of which firmly establishes Crystal Bridges not only as a major destination for American painting and sculpture, but also as the institutional centerpiece of the Arkansas Art Trail. A 10-stop route through the heart of the Northwestern Arkansas mountains, the Art Trail links artists, galleries and museums with the distinctive landscapes and American-village scenery that has long served as inspiration.
At the Crystal Bridges Museum, for instance, artworks abound inside, but equal attention has been given to the way the outdoor setting enhances and reflects the American art experience. Safdie’s building is surrounded by placid ponds, sculpture gardens, and thick forests through which more than three miles of walking trails lead to nearby downtown Bentonville.
Designed to incorporate a mix of natural and cultural heritage, the Art Trail has wide appeal for traveling families: Civil War sites for the history buffs, landmark architecture and galleries for the art lovers, and miles of forest paths for outdoorsy types.
Rural highways and a network of woodland hiking trails wind through a region of dark-blue lakes, bubbling mineral springs and views across the rugged Ozark Mountains. Parks along the trail include Buffalo River National Park, Roaring River State Park, and the Pea Ridge National Military Park, one of the country’s most intact Civil War battlefields and an inspiration for Homer and other 19th-century painters.
The natural home base is Eureka Springs, a pretty Victorian-era village on the National Register of Historic Places. Every bit of it is charming, from its antique shops and small boutiques to its corner art galleries and landmark hotels — the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa being a longtime favorite. On the second Saturday of each month, Eureka Springs opens its art galleries for guided strolls while live musicians play in the square.
A similar whiff of bygone, small-town Americana is at Bentonville Square, which hosts first-Friday block parties. If the name sounds familiar, yes, you’re right: This is the historic home of Wal-Mart, the big-box discount empire that Sam Walton founded nearly 60 years ago and which is still based here.
And, no surprise, it’s Walton money that is behind the collection at the core of the Crystal Springs Museum. The founder and chair of its board of directors is Alice Walton, Sam’s daughter, and major funding came from the Walton Family Foundation. The company is not affiliated with the museum, but Wal-Mart subsidizes admission discounts.
In Bentonville, you can tour the Wal-Mart Visitor Center, newly re-opened to the public after 18 months of renovation. Audio stations and touch-screen displays add a modern note to the vintage memorabilia, which include photos of Sam Walton (who died in 1992), retro toys and candies, and original installations from Walton’s Five & Ten store, with piped-in midcentury music.
You might note the irony in nostalgia for mom-and-pop downtown stores at the world headquarters of the corporation many see as responsible for their widespread demise. But it’s hard to argue with the way Walton put the Ozarks on the national map.
And with the opening of Crystal Bridges and the Arkansas Art Trail, Walton influence has given art lovers everywhere a reason to head for the hills.