Art in the South

Lots of people have visited Bentonville, Ark., home of Walmart, for commercial reasons. Now there’s another major reason to visit: to go to a new museum with a superb collection of American art. Not only that, but the museum, the idea of one of the heirs of the Walmart fortune, has no admission charge. “Your admission has been provided by Walmart,” they tell you.

The museum at dusk. Photo by Timothy Hursley

Crystal Bridges Museum is the brainchild of Alice Walton, 62, youngest daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. The art alone in the museum has been estimated to have cost $445.4 million. The works are beautiful, from pre-Revolutionary War art to Andy Warhol’s Dolly Parton and Chuck Close’s portrait of Bill Clinton. Cost was not a factor in founding the museum, as Alice Walton’s wealth is estimated at $21 billion, among the top ten wealthiest in the USA. She spent liberally.

Then there’s the building design itself, a stunning production of the world-famous Montreal architect Moshe Safdie. Its 120 acres are nestled in a ravine 10 minutes from downtown Bentonville. The museum is a series of several buildings totaling 200,000 square feet connected at right angles, with a stream flowing underneath. Looking down on the ravine from the fourth floor entrance, the copper-covered roofs remind me of a beetle. Some 3.5 miles of trails surround the site.

Alice Walton’s whole idea was to collect only American art. She’s done a good job. Museum people are surprised she would locate a museum in mid-America. But if her goal was unthinkable years ago, it works now: to make Bentonville a destination site for art lovers. She gets our vote, as we thoroughly enjoyed the visit, and hope to return again later on.

Andy Warhol's Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton by Andy Warhol

No one on the Crystal Bridges staff will talk about the cost. But the construction cost was estimated at $50 million alone. Not only that, but the museum has a support system the envy of many museums: an endowment of $800 million from the Walton Family Foundation. That is among the largest of any museum in the country.

Visitors especially like another feature: “Your admission has been paid by Walmart,” the guides tell you. Walmart itself gave a $20 million grant so that visitors would not be charged $10, as originally planned.

Once inside, what do you see: several tastefully-designed galleries, with plenty of room to display the art. There’s a Revolutionary War era portrait of George Washington, the giant-size Rosie The Riveter by Norman Rockwell, and then a plethora of famous American artists, from Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Asher Durand, Thomas Hart Benton (for whom Bentonville is named). Altogether, there are 440 works on exhibit, and another 800 in storage to come out to emphasize different phases of art from time to time.

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell
Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

The museum opened on Nov. 11, 2011, some two years behind the original schedule. Many of the art works were on public display for the first time, since they were bought from private collections. Some individual pieces cost from $20 to $68 million each.

Crystal Bridge’s mission statement is simple: “We invite all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art and the beauty of landscape.”

Here’s a “Thank You” to all who shop at Walmart. You enabled the founder’s daughter to give the United States this wonderful museum.

* * *

IT’S NOT EASY to get to Bentonville, population 35,000 in Northwest Arkansas. You might fly into Fayetteville or even Bentonville, but it’s costly. You also have two other airports with direct flights within two hours, Tulsa, Okla., and Branson, Mo.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared at Photo of the museum and the paintings are courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and used with permission granted to the author.
Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack is a native Georgian and veteran newspaperman. He published the weekly Wayne County Press for 12 years; was for 13 years the vice president and general manager of Gwinnett Daily News, and for 13 years was associate publisher of the Gwinnett section of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. He now publishes, in retirement, Web sites on Gwinnett County,, and Georgia news,