It's fairly easy to sense that this is a company town. You can drive the commercial strip of Walton Boulevard, the U.S. 71 Business Route, past Wal-Mart's world headquarters and numerous corporate outposts: Wal-Mart Logistics, Wal-Mart Global Support and the like.
In the town square there's the Walton Five and Dime museum, commemorating the rise of retailer Sam Walton and clan. And all over are the glowing blue signs of Arvest Bank, a financial arm of the Waltons.
The family name, businesses and influence have much to do with the fast-growth aura of Bentonville and neighboring towns along Interstate 540 in Arkansas' northwest corner.
And now the family that built its retail empire on high volume and discount pricing is delivering something completely different from its usual consume-dispose-and-do-it-again world.
After a series of VIP and member previews, on Nov. 11, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a place that invites reflection, cultural dialogue and learning, opened to the public astride a tree-lined creek bed in a patch of family acreage just a few blocks from Bentonville's town square.
Local merchants and residents had been gearing up for the museum's opening, expecting an influx of tourists and their dollars.
"I can't yet say what it's going to do, but I can't imagine anything but good things happening," says Josh Milton, manager of the Phat Tire Bike Shop on the square. "I'm glad there's going to be more culture in the area."
A couple of blocks away, site work is under way for a $23 million, 100-room hotel, expected to open by the end of 2012. Classy new bistros have been sprouting near the square, and the local Chamber of Commerce projects an influx of 250,000 annual visitors.
Crystal Bridges was spearheaded by Alice L. Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen.
So far the museum building and the extensive holdings of paintings and sculptures it has acquired in the last six years amount to an investment far exceeding $400 million, according to IRS documents. In addition, in recent months the Walton Family Foundation has pledged $800 million in endowment and acquisition funds — thought to be a record-setting gift to an American museum — and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. added $20 million to ensure Crystal Bridges can operate with free admission.
"I think we all want to give something from the heart," Alice Walton, 62, said in a brief recent interview in the museum's boardroom. "This part of the world means a great deal to me. I want people to have something that we didn't have when I was growing up."
Walton is listed by Forbes magazine as the 10th richest American, with assets of $20.9 billion. A cutting-horse competitor, she now lives on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas. She enlisted her Bentonville siblings and some of their children to support the museum, and it was the younger generation, she said, who gave their blessing to put the museum on family land.
Walton has been collecting American art for the last 20 years or so, buying major works and making waves at auctions and in private sales. She has become such a force in the art world that only the wealthiest of institutions and collectors — Bill Gates, for example, is another prominent buyer of American art — can compete with her for trophy acquisitions in their increasingly rare appearances on the market.
So now her museum has opened with a collection of paintings and sculptures that encompass an American story that stretches from colonial times to today.
"It's a terrific collection," says Margi Conrads, curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
For a book about Crystal Bridges highlights, Conrads contributed essays about the museum's Winslow Homer works. While Conrads is familiar with virtually all of the pieces in the collection, she said that having them in one place provides new opportunities for exploring art and ideas.
"What is really exciting and interesting to me is to see the body of work together, as a totality, to see it as a collection hung together. … I'm really interested to see how the works talk to each other, and as a result of that, the new insights I gain."
Many art museums across the country have added significant expansions in the last decade or two, but few new museums have been built out of whole cloth.
"There have not been many openings, certainly not on this scale, in the last decade," said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums.
Crystal Bridges, like the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, is considered a single-donor museum, and thus belongs in the lineage, Blanton said, of such institutions as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Frick in New York.
With its unusually deep pockets, Crystal Bridges is bound to increase its collection for years to come, and its officials hope to expand partnerships with other museums in the region to share art, exhibits and educational opportunities.
Walton said she expected there'd be great opportunities to work with museums in, say, St. Louis, Kansas City and Tulsa.
"I hope we can get a Midwestern art trail going," she said. "That would be fun."
Conrads, of the Nelson-Atkins, said that she knows of at least two art institutions, one on each coast, planning patron trips next spring to Bentonville.
"And as long as they are in the neighborhood," Conrads said, "they will also spend some time with us."
If you go …
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened to the public Nov. 11 in Bentonville, Ark., a three-hour drive south on U.S. 71 from Kansas City. Because of high demand, free tickets will be available only by timed reservation at least through the end of the year. Make reservations online (crystalbridges.org) or by phone (479-418-5700) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Distributed by MCT Information Services