Exploring Alice's Wonderland: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
If you were to tell me that Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and I had anything in common besides our gender, nationality, and race, I would scoff and think you were a little off your deeply discounted made-in-China rocker. She’s the first or second or third wealthiest woman in the country, depending on what year it is. I am...not. Yet, as I was researching the art museum she founded in the middle of the Ozarks, I found that we absolutely had something in common. As little girls, we each saved our allowance to buy art.
When I was around twelve, I think, my dad was exhibiting at the Around the Fountain art fair in Lafayette, Indiana. I browsed the other artists’ tents and fell in love with a framed and matted photo of a backlit buck in a golden glade. All I had was $20. I don’t know if it was because I was a pre-teen or because my dad was a fellow artist, but Mr. Chet Chalinski accepted my bid and I purchased my first piece.
Alice was slightly younger when she bought hers. At ten years old she took her two dollars, which represented about eight weeks of allowance, and bought a reproduction of Picasso’s “Blue Nude” in her father’s Ben Franklin dime-store franchise.
Both were formative events, enough so that we each remember our own decades later, but that’s where the similarities end. Since that little girl's earnest purchase, Alice became a full-fledged collector and in 2011 founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The museum is situated on 120 acres in the unlikely town of Bentonville, Arkansas. When you consider that’s Alice’s hometown the location makes sense, but the idea of a world class museum in the middle of the Ozarks is something that just isn't done. This is even more true when you consider the breadth, depth, and quality of the works of art exhibited.
(Please behold my tongue lodged firmly in cheek.)
Alice - I feel like we’re on a first name basis, what with the girlhood art-loving connection - used several millions of her billions to purchase works by some of America’s most defining artists, to the chagrin of the art scene on the coasts. She caused quite the stink when she bought Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” for $35 million from the New York Public Library. “She’s taking it WHERE?” was the hue and cry. The maverick heiress has even been known to bid on Sotheby’s auctions from the saddle of her horse in Texas. To the benefit of those who aren't in New York, Los Angeles, or even Chicago, her dogged pursuit has lined the walls of the museum with works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Frederic Church, Roy Lichtenstein, and John Singer Sargent, to name a very few. Eight galleries showcase a broad cross-section of American art, from before the country began to modern times. It’s a veritable who’s who of American artists and a collection of iconic American symbols.
Admission to the museum is free, courtesy of Walmart. which means that anyone can view, up-close, the iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, or Alexander Hamilton in the most gigantic gold frame you’ve ever seen, or Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, brandishing a sandwich to go with that bandana. You can see the brush strokes in Sargent’s Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, or the languid subjects of Mary Cassatt. Frederick Eversley's "Big Red Lens" turns everything rosy, and you'll be transfixed by Ruth Asawa's "Untitled." Every turn, every new gallery elicits a gasp of either recognition or appreciation or, most often, both. One gallery is devoted to U.S. Presidents and their slogans: A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage was Herbert Hoover’s promise. Don’t trade horses when crossing streams was Abraham Lincoln’s admonition. Let’s make America great again was the rallying cry of...Ronald Reagan.
The museum does not just contain art within its buildings, the architecture itself is a work of art. Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, it straddles Crystal Creek, harnessing the natural beauty that surrounds and envelopes its unique design. Instead of razing trees and building the museum on the banks of the river, Safdie created two ponds from the creek and erected the museum over and around the water, hence the name Crystal Bridges. Even the restaurant is a performance piece, situated between the two ponds and enclosed in a light-filled frame of floor to ceiling windows and an arched roof. Outside, sculptures turn the three miles of trails that weave through the grounds into an alfresco gallery (including a GIANT SPIDER. Don't say I didn't warn you.).
Alice has created her own art-lovers wonderland, and this is one rabbit hole worth jumping into heart first.
Planning a trip to Bentonville? Find a top-rated hotel near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
My husband and I traveled almost 6,500 miles to find places that are unique, changed the course of history, made the world a better place, showcased survival, or were just plain cool. I’m sharing our journey in “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1,” and you can pre-order your copy today!