Danny Johnston, Associated Press
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — A visitor arriving at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sees a curved concrete facade with the museum's name and, behind it, a stand of trees on a hillside.
Where's the museum?
Get closer, then look down.
A series of connected pavilions under curved copper roofs stretch through a tree-lined ravine. Two of the buildings serve as bridges over ponds filled from a spring-fed stream that flows through the site.
To get in, just follow the wave of people going downstairs.
Crystal Bridges is regarded as the most important museum to open in the U.S. in decades, and it has done so in a city of 35,000 in the Ozark Mountains that's served by a single interstate highway that terminates in the middle of town, not far from the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
More than 175,000 people have made their way to the museum in the less than four months since it opened Nov. 11.
The museum serves a busy corridor of four cities in northwest Arkansas that has nearly 500,000 people, and it's just a few minutes away from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Hotels are plentiful in the area and an upscale 21c Museum Hotel is under construction within walking distance of the museum. So far, zip code surveys of visitors show that the majority of guests — more than 80 percent — have come from Arkansas, according to statistics provided by the museum.
The Crystal Bridges collection was amassed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who used her fortune to stock the galleries with paintings and sculptures that reflect the nation's artistic development and its history, from colonial times to the present.
By virtue of a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart, admission is free, as are audio tours of the collection. Some special exhibitions, none of which have yet been announced, may carry a fee.
The regular collection starts with early American paintings and moves forward chronologically. The first view offers a look at a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington, the general in uniform, posed with his hand on a cannon. But in closer view is a landscape by John Taylor and a painting in classical style, "Cupid and Psyche," by Benjamin West.
Farther down is the museum's centerpiece, Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits," bought by Walton in 2005 for a reported $35 million, removing the ethereal scene in the Catskill Mountains from its longtime home in the New York Public Library.
That purchase and a number of others drew howls from critics who didn't want to see beloved pieces moved to an unlikely spot in the nation's heartland. But many of the works, purchased by Walton from private collections, have never been on public display before.
Organizers noted during previews that the museum's collection is just getting started. Forbes magazine lists Walton as the 10th wealthiest American with $20.9 billion to her name.
The museum has about 1,250 works, and about 440 of them are on display. In the museum's special exhibition area are 33 additional works from the collection, a rambunctious mix of mainly contemporary works that often test the viewer's eye. Mary McCleary's "The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer" isn't a painting — it's composed of rolled-up pieces of colored paper.
Devorah Sperber's "After the Last Supper" presents an inverted rendering of Leonardo's masterpiece that rights itself when viewed through a glass globe. The wall-size work itself is assembled of spools of thread of different colors.