As my recent travels have taken me to Australia, Singapore and the Middle East, traveling to Bentonville, Arkansas felt almost as exotic. Fayetteville was my base, home to the University of Arkansas. The area was lovely with rolling hills, lush overgrowth, and an intact historic district with homes built in the 1920s. There was little culture in the area, until recently. It is a quintessential American story starting with Walmart founding its first store in 1962 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Now the company is listed on the Forbes top 100 list, is a company that employs more people than any other company in the United States outside of the Federal government, and is the world’s biggest retailer.
Move forward to the present day, the heir to the Walmart fortune, Alice Walton, has made a commitment to the cultural environment of her hometown, Bentonville, and built a museum campus called Crystal Bridges with the architect Moshe Safdie. Established under the name Walmart Foundation, the Foundation has access to these deep Walmart corporate pockets, which have changed the socio-economics of a small southern town. And when they chose to enter the art cultural conversation, they are, and will have just as big an impact as the Doha Sheikha.
I mention the financials of this new US institution as with the American Federal government continually cutting back the cultural budget, and a continuing debate whether to keep the Smithsonian Institution, the American people’s museum, free to the public, it says a lot that the newest museum developed in the US, funded by the private sector, has granted free admission in perpetuity. This is in contrast to a newly built museum, MONA, the museum I visited in Hobart Tasmania, which started with free admission, and within a year, realized that it was not financially possible to continue this way. Now MONA is free to residents of Hobart. Let’s hope Crystal Bridges may continue to be free, as it is a special gift.
With little else in the cultural landscape in this part of the United States, the Walmart Foundation, building a major museum in middle America, brought culture to a geographic place where it is much needed and although not on first thought, is strategically located with fairly easy access. There is already a nice size airport , listed as Northwest Arkansas, as having Walmart, a major company in the region, executives need to come in and out of the area. This allows for direct flights from New York to Northwest Arkansas. And Bentonville is a 5 hour drive from major mid American cities, such as Tulsa and St Louis.
With the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in November 2011, Bentonville is being listed as a world-class destination. Even, Travel & Leisuremagazine recently named Bentonville on a list of 12 hot travel destinations for 2012. It is a beautiful place, with outdoor trails and generous hallways to converse through the art spaces.
The collection offers an overview of American Art, including American masterworks as well as lesser-known gems from the Colonial era to the contemporary work. When I visited, there was an exhibition on The Hudson River School, which dovetails well with the major permanent collection. As the museum has a campus feel, the grounds are beautiful with trails and outdoor sculpture is to be found on the path – a Turrell installation, major Mark DiSuvero sculpture and I loved the George Rickey which graces the entrance to the museum. As the grounds are laid out so beautifully and Safdie, the architect was specific about incorporating the outside and the inside, there are beautiful views throughout the museum of the gardens and while outside, it is a pleasant experience. As the museum opened a mere 6 months ago, I do not feel that it is fair to critique the collection. Instead, I feel that it is a great beginning, a gift to the United States people, and with the Walmart Foundation’s capabilities, I feel hopeful that the museum will continue to grow and fill out their permanent collection in an exciting and true to their mission style.