Where can you spend a family-friendly, fun day enjoying the great outdoors,while giving your kids a taste of culture and a bit of art education, too? Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, beautifully blends art with nature. It also provides access to everyone with free admission daily, part of the mission of founder and Walmart heir Alice Walton. Pack a picnic and get ready to be inspired.
Art Museum Inspiration
Growing up outside of Chicago, I spent many days meandering art museums, happily wiling away hours lost in thought. Honestly, is there anything as inspiring as gazing at masterworks, letting your mind create stories both of the art and the artist? Once, I had the insane good fortune of receiving an invitation to a private showing of a Monet exhibit. I can’t recall who sponsored the party or why I was invited. All I know is this: there was a moment when I was alone with a gallery filled with Monets, champagne glass in hand, and not another soul sharing my view.
It felt like a dream.
Whenever I’m near a big city, I try to find the opportunity to visit its art museum. And whenever I can, I try to share art museums with my kids. Imagine my excitement when I received an invitation to tour an amazing museum, notable not only for its fabulous collection of American masterworks, but also for its natural setting and native plant collections. A garden and art lover’s paradise!
I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know much about Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art before my trip. Honestly, I didn’t expect a world-class art museum as a destination in Arkansas. New York, Los Angeles, sure. However, providing accessible art and culture to the residents of Arkansas is the goal of Crystal Bridges.
Art for All
Founded by Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges opened on November 11, 2011. A long-time art enthusiast and collector, Walton envisioned an architecturally spectacular museum nestled in the natural environment of the Ozarks, where local people could access great works of art. She shared her vision with her family, and the Walton Family Foundation agreed to support the project.
As ground broke in 2006 for the museum, Walton began shaping the collection along with her advisors. The project wasn’t without controversy. When the team acquired Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library, critics characterize Walton as an art vulture, hiding the great American masterworks in Arkansas. However, regional fans embraced her vision, backing bonds to enhance Bentonville’s infrastructure to support the museum. The locals eagerly anticipated the opening of Crystal Bridges.
I eagerly anticipated my adventure to Crystal Bridges as well. As a garden writer, it seemed appropriate that my introduction to the museum began outside, on one of the many trails established throughout the 120-acre Ozark forest. One of the beauties of Walton’s vision is that the grounds are as much a part of the Crystal Bridges experience as is the art inside. According to the museum’s “Outside” brochure:
“Stewardship of our natural environment is a key element of Crystal Bridges’ mission and informs our overall philosophy—that art and nature are both vital to the human spirit and should be accessible to all.”
With more than three miles of trails meandering through the Ozark forest, visitors quickly forget that there’s a bustling, world-renowned art museum just yards away from the tree-lined paths. My first foray into the woods gave me an overview of the trails and native plants. A guide shared tidbits of museum history while pointing out the cultivars of dogwoods and red buds. In fact, more than 250,000 native plants or cultivars were planted throughout the museum grounds, including 1,600 trees, all to add seasonal interest to the property. From pink dogwoods along the entry drive to red maples along the south lawn, eye-catching seasonal color and texture are creatively incorporated into the landscape.
One of my favorite philosophies employed by Crystal Bridges’ director of grounds and facilities is this premise: “Leave No Child Inside.” Many gardens are not child-friendly. Trust me, I’ve pulled my youngest son out of a 200-year-old Japanese maple at Biltmore Estate. However, the grounds of Crystal Bridges encourage children to play and explore. It’s OK to climb on Robert Tannen’s boulders, Grains of Sand. Splashing in the water of Cindy Spring elicits shrieks of joy, not reprimands. There’s even a “stump walk” along the Dogwood Trail that tests coordination. (I didn’t try it.) Walton’s memories of playing in these woods with her brothers led her to share that joy with future generations of children, many who have little experience with nature and its pleasure.
As I toured the grounds with my guide, I saw the museum’s influence extend into nature:
After a lovely tour, I headed for lunch in the museum’s restaurant, Eleven 11. I don’t know about you, but I have never eaten at a museum restaurant and thought, “Wow. I’d love to come back for dinner.” Typically, museum restaurants offer mediocre, sub-par but pricey hot dogs, hamburgers, and limp salads.
Not Eleven 11. Its chef and menu both delight. In fact, it’s a popular dining and event choice.
(If you’d prefer to keep your visit free, however, pack a picnic and enjoy the grounds.)
After a delicious lunch and fabulous dessert, I began the journey through the museum.
American Art through the Ages.
To be clear, although I love art, I’m not schooled in art. At all. To me, touring an art museum is an extremely personal experience. I love to learn about the artists, the periods, the various styles and genres, and simply let the inspiration from the artists’ talent re-energize me. There’s something about immersing yourself in art and allowing the creativity surrounding you to inspire and rejuvenate. While I have exactly no artistic ability—truly, I’ve tried—I love surrounding myself with inspiration. Whether it’s a wild abstract painting, a fascinating sculpture carved from wood that I have no idea what it means, or a realistic oil painting with amazing attention to details and lighting, I’m enthralled.
The collection at Crystal Bridges impresses.
It’s the first museum dedicated to American art in more than a generation, according to the museum guide. The collection spans five centuries of American art, from Colonial times to today’s artists. Arranged chronologically, most visitors follow the tour to understand the development of art throughout American history.
Of course, I broke the rules and began with the contemporary collection.
I love the quote by Executive Director Don Bacigalupi in the museum’s guide:
“There are at least three levels at which a great work of art must operate. First, is visual engagement, the delight in the eye. This is what draws you to a work of art, the first level of engagement. The second layer might be the intellectual engagement, the meaning embedded in the work. The third layer is much more elusive. This is the emotional content, or the work’s appeal to the heart. In the greatest works of art, the ones that really sustain themselves over time and really are works for the ages, [there’s] evidence of all three of these functions at work: the eye, the mind, and the heart.”
It’s true. I think often about great works that I’ve seen in person, the ones that linger in my memories. When I chaperoned my daughter’s eighth grade field trip to NYC, I let my group of girls plan our outings. However, when we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I took them upstairs after the Egypt exhibit. I told them they needed to see some of the masterworks in person, to stand in front of a Van Gogh and a Renoir, to let the paintings speak to them. I said it’s an important part of forming their intellectual character, experiencing art first hand. We don’t often see the Masters in South Carolina.
The girls humored me for 20 minutes. At least I tried.
Blending Art, Architecture, and Nature.
The art is perfectly ensconced in the architecture of Crystal Bridges. The museum contrasts beautifully and seamlessly into the natural surroundings, its spectacular design embraced by the landscape. As I wandered through the museum, views of the ponds and bridges reflected Israel-born architect Moshe Safdie’s genius. Materials used to construct the buildings complement the surroundings, with natural woods and copper roofs. Preservation of the natural landscape took priority in constructing the museum, disturbing as little of the forest as possible and repurposing timber from trees removed from the forest into benches, frames, and even art by local artists.
The dedication to environmental issues can even be noted by the installation of a green roof over the gift shop.
The flow of the building, with its curved walls, especially enthralled me. I spent many minutes trying to capture the perfect photo, showing how the design allows guests to view many art installations at once. It’s not a concept I’ve seen at the museums I’ve visited.
Sadly, my itinerary’s time frame didn’t allow me to view all of the collections. I’m hopeful to return to Bentonville with my family sometime soon. Not only is Crystal Bridges a must-see museum, the town of Bentonville is full of charm. Don’t miss the original Wal-Mart building, which is also a free destination – but you’ll probably need to spend a few dollars at The Spark Café soda fountain. After all, after a day of artistic inspiration, you’ll need to celebrate with ice cream.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art/600 Museum Way, Bentonville, AR 72712/phone: 479.418.5700
Hours: Saturday/Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Monday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tuesday CLOSED; Wednesday/Thursday/Friday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas
Crystal Bridges Trails and Grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Admission to permanent collection: FREE.