Monday, October 1, 2012


Of the several towns that dot northwest Arkansas, Bentonville was first on our list to explore. We started today’s visit with a quick lunch at Whole Hog Cafe, which offers a selection of six barbecue sauces to top their tasty smoked meats. After sampling each with our pulled pork sandwiches, we elected #6 our favorite.

After lunch we made our way “downtown” to the quite charming town square. In its center, a statue of Confederate Soldier, US Senator and Arkansas Governor James H. Berry pays homage to the Civil War. The Benton County Courthouse dominates one side of the square.

Opposite the courthouse sits the humble beginnings of the world’s largest retailer. Sam Walton purchased this original Five and Dime in May 1950. By the time of his death in 1992, Walton’s retailing empire had expanded to nearly 2,000 Wal-Marts, Sam’s Clubs and Supercenters employing 380,000 people generating annual sales of nearly $50 billion. And, it’s kept growing since. Today, the original store houses the Walmart Visitors Center.

We thought this would be a quick stop, but our visit was surprisingly captivating. We watched a short film about “Mr. Sam” and the story of Walmart. Then, we perused several displays about the man and his stores. This display depicts Walton’s office on the day he died. The office was photographed, cataloged, moved and carefully recreated here at the center. The exhibit notes that the most realistic thing about this display is that Walton isn’t in it, because he was rarely in his office.

Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest men, Walton drove this 1979 Ford F150 truck until the day he died. We enjoyed learning a bit more about this interesting leader, successful capitalist and proud American.

From the square, we made our way to the Art Trail and took a very peaceful half-mile hike past Compton Gardens toward a place we’d never heard about until last week, when Paul’s cousin and his wife told us not to miss it. We weren’t really sure what we were in for, but we were enjoying the walk!

A simple sign directed the way to the place we were here to see. We were getting close to Crystal Bridges, the not-quite-one-year-old American Art Museum founded by Sam Walton’s daughter Alice.

Taking a long walk is a wonderful way to approach a museum. Several pieces of sculpture lined the path. The back doors to the museum were just beyond Bentonville’s own version of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture. You can find versions of this pop artist’s most famous work in New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Tokyo and now Bentonville. We knew we were in for something special.

We checked in at the desk inside the door. Admission is free, thanks to a $20 million gift from Walmart. (Thanks, Walmart!) As we walked a long corridor toward the permanent collection, we caught a glimpse of this gorgeous place. It’s name comes from the impressive bridge-like pavillions that span Bentonville’s Crystal Creek.

When it comes to art, we are no aficianados. We’ve passed by more art museums than we’ve passed through. But, there is something about this place.

The space itself is a stunning work of art, from the outside in. Even the title of the museum’s permanent collection, Celebrating the American Spirit, is inviting.

The more than 400 works in the collection are arranged in roughly chronological order, which makes your visit literally a walk through American art history since the Colonial Era.

Name an American artist and chances are you’ll find at least one example of his or her work here. We found four pieces from one of our favorites, and Bentonville’s namesake, Thomas Hart Benton.

Much of the collection is illustrated with interesting stories, which bring the pieces to life. This porcelain teapot was used in William Henry Harrison’s presidential campaign to appeal to women. (Of course, in 1840, women were not yet allowed to vote!)

Norman Rockwell brought Rosie the Riveter home to Americans with this painting, which made the cover of the popular Saturday Evening Post in May 1943. Seeing the larger than life image up close we could almost feel the sense of indomitable strength Rockwell captured. Alice Walton acquired this famous painting in 2009 for $4.9 million. What a treat to see it...for free.

Our artistic tastes tend to lean toward the more modern. So, we especially enjoyed the Contemporary collection, which included works by Lichtenstein, Calder and Warhol.

Ultra-realist Max Ferguson’s oil painting titled Time tells a compelling story about the passage of its namesake.

One of the most fascinating pieces (for us, anyway) was Devorah Sperber’s recreation of a famous work of art using hanging spools of thread and a viewing sphere. (We won’t spoil the surprise!)

Several pieces of sculpture are included in the collection, but this one is definitely the most realistic. The title of Canadian sculptor Evan Penny’s slightly larger than life bust says it all: Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as he Will (Not) Be. Yep. It’s all that, and a little creepy.

Have we told you lately how much we love this space? In spaces like this that house priceless works of art, light is the enemy. But, here it’s welcome. Corridors washed in natural light surround the exhibit spaces.

These walls of windows bring the outside in and allow visitors, like Paul, to appreciate the beauty beyond its walls.

The architecture of Moshe Safdie in his design of Crystal Bridges made quite an impression on us. We love it! Some have called his designs “artitectural”. After seeing his work here (and at the stunning new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City), we certainly agree.

We look forward to our next visit!


dreamjosie said...

Mary, thank you so much for sharing this special place. It's a destination on our bucket list for sure. We often enjoy art museums if they are convenient. But this one looks worth going out of one's way for.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary and Paul,
I lost track of you site. I finally found it. I wish I can see more pictures of the two of you. It's great to see you enjoying what life has to offer to the max.