For some, getting in the car from Austin and driving the whole day to see art, means Marfa. But it could also mean Bentonville.
Nestled in the northwest corner of Arkansas, Bentonville is home to the owners of Walmart and their very impressive art collection, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The facility, which opened to the public in 2011, spans five centuries of artwork and 120 acres of landscape.
But before there were Warhols in the Ozarks, there were Waltons. Founder and patriarch Sam Walton initially moved his family to Bentonville in the 1950s, opening a 5&10 on the downtown square (the first Walmart opened in neighboring Rogers, AR in 1962). Today, that 5&10 store is a quaint museum embodying the folksy virtues of Walton’s philosophy — “the kinds of traditional principles that made America great in the first place” — which, in turn, built the largest retailer in the world and wealthiest family in America.
It’s hard to get too hung up on the evils of capitalism when a scoop of homemade ice cream costs a buck at the end of your visit. (You can also skip the museum altogether and head straight to the soda fountain). Thus is the Bentonville way: a throwback era of small-town values imbued with picture-perfect surroundings that have attracted visitors from all over the world.
But don’t be fooled by its nostalgic charm: all eyes are on Bentonville’s future. In addition to Crystal Bridges — where, like the Walmart Museum, admission is free — the Walton Family Foundation, located just down the road, is busy expanding economic, educational, and cultural opportunities within the region. Construction is underway on an eco-friendly corporate campus, and earlier this year, plans were announced for a state-of-the-art medical school with a holistic focus. High tech is also moving in. As are the mountain bikers — Bentonville has been hailed the “mountain biking capital of the world.”
Even Crystal Bridges itself is getting a 100,000-square-foot add-on (the facility is currently 200,000 square feet). Designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the museum is a “nature-centric” design meant to complement the contours found throughout the leafy landscape. Much like a Frank Lloyd Wright house (there is one located on the premises) the structure stays close to the earth, an architectural philosophy that embraces harmony rather than dominion over nature.
On the day I visit, the rain can barely contain itself. Early autumn is putting on a quiet show across the pond that separates the museum from a tree-covered hillside. Colorful orbs by glass master Dale Chihuly sit in the water’s still surface, waiting for the sun to come back out. “Niijima Floats” (2017) are among the many contemporary outdoor works (including other installations by Chihuly) to remind visitors that they are at an art museum, and not, say, a Zen retreat.
But with Kusama comes nirvana: the 92-year-old artist has an infinity room, “My Heart is Dancing into the Universe” (2018), as part of the museum’s permanent collection. Other 20th-century biggies include Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Isamu Noguchi. There is also work from some of the most acclaimed artists working today: Kehinde Wiley, Jeffrey Gibson, Martine Gutierrez.
Current exhibitions include a “living greenhouse” by Rashid Johnson, a sound installation by Bethany Collins, and a photography exhibit on the late pop star Selena (which, incidentally, was organized by San Antonio’s McNay Museum of Art).
Across town, at The Momentary, Crystal Bridges’ younger, cooler sibling (also free admission), exhibitions by up-and-coming artists are in lively rotation. This former Kraft manufacturing plant, with its industrial aesthetic and surprisingly downtown vibe, is in pleasant contrast to the main museum.
The Momentary was unfortunately in between exhibitions during my visit, though I did manage to catch Cauleen Smith’s videos installation, “Space Station: Radiant Behind The Sun,” and Kenny Rivero’s “The Floor is Crooked,” 31 paintings that ponder the New York artist’s Dominican-American identity. Baseball (Yankees, of course), church, city streets, and socks — so many socks — appear throughout.
“Lamps and Socks” (2020) is a predawn love letter, that moment just as the city shifts from night into a grayish blue. Socks dance in the triangular glow of a streetlight, their reds and pinks a little punchy for that time of the morning. Rivero says it’s a reference to a long-running joke: Dominicans don’t like wearing socks. So socks roam the streets while everyone is fast asleep.
The Momentary is fun. And the Waltons are clearly as comfortable with showcasing young and emerging artists, as they are with painters from, say, the Hudson River School. (Parts of Bentonville could pass for a Thomas Cole painting, of which there are several on view.) But you don’t need to toggle between The Momentary and Crystal Bridges to appreciate their thoughtful blend of then and now: just look to the Early American galleries in the main museum.
Beth Lipman’s “Belonging(s)” (2020), an illuminated glass trunk filled with various trinkets and objects, recalls the privileged life of one Abigail Levy Franks, born into a prominent New York merchant family in the 1700s. An oil painting of Abigail titled “Mrs. Jacob Franks” (ca. 1735) as well as portraits of other family members, are mounted on the wall just behind Lipman’s colonial critique. Although museums have been reorganizing their collections for some time now, this particular experiment — a contemporary artist confronting an oil painting from 300 years ago, and installing her work right there — feels surprisingly new.
Other re-imaginings include a salon-style hang, featuring turn-of-the century portraits that look to timeless themes of nostalgia and beauty. (While Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s dancerly sculpture, “The Bubble” (1928) and John Singer Sargent’s “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885), demurely look on from across the room.) There is also a gallery dedicated to frontier oil paintings and mid-nineteenth century indigenous crafts, including bags and accessories constructed by Iroquois, Lakota, and Ojibwe persons.
But the most striking example of curatorial time travel is right at the entrance of the exhibition: Nari Ward’s “We the People (black version)” (2015). The Preamble’s opening words, written in the same back-slanted calligraphy as in the U.S. Constitution, takes up an entire wall, with a glass-encased clay figure, dating back more than 500 years from the Mississippi people of eastern Arkansas, perched on an adjacent wall.
“We the People” bleeds color with the thousands of shoe laces collected by Ward in and around New York City. It is a youthful, energetic take on the signatory of democracy, constructed out of something all Americans can get behind: a good pair of kicks. To place that small Mississippian figure next to these larger-than-life words, full circles the American narrative, in a messy beauty kind of way.
Throughout these galleries, the accompanying wall text unknots the American tangle of history, power, struggle, and hope with a sense of judiciousness. One, titled “Marking Land,” sums it up like this: “Whether in reference to Indigenous land, the creation of borders, or the twenty-first-century possibilities of digital territory, landscapes have long been both revered and disputed in this country.”
It may seem like there is built-in irony here — Walmart versus high art — but Crystal Bridges really does get at the big(ger) picture. For a quiet little town hidden in the Ozarks, the Waltons sure are trying to build a future for a better, healthier, more equitable society.
Sure, Marfa has Prada. But Walmart is in a class of its own.
For more information, crystalbridges.org.