The open field with hay bales rolled up like carpets pinned down my general location: I was somewhere in Arkansas. For the exact destination, I narrowed in on the landscape, fixing my telescope on giant sculptures of hay-stuffed figures vogueing in arty agricultural poses. That was all the confirmation I needed: I had arrived in Bentonville, where country has gone contemporary.
Until recently, if you free-associated the northwestern town’s name, you’d quickly shout out “Wal-Mart.” And you’d be right: The global-domination company is headquartered here. But two years ago, Alice Walton unveiled Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the same town that hosts her daddy’s home office. Now “the first major American art museum to open in the country in half a century” sits beside “world’s largest retailer” on Bentonville’s boast sheet.
The town balances on a seesaw of high art and low commerce. On one side, you have the Asher B. Durand 1849 painting “Kindred Spirits,” which the heiress purchased for reportedly north of $35 million; at the other end of the plank, the 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter up the road.
“When I go to New York City, they say, ‘Don’t you have some kind of museum?’ ” a docent-in-training told me as we stood in the shadow of a John Baldessari sculpture of a massive ear. “I want to show them that people in Arkansas know art.”
Bentonville’s downtown, which is undergoing a cultural and culinary renaissance, fits into a gift box of a square. Stout brick buildings dressed in bright awnings form a circle of friendship around a neatly landscaped park with a marble fountain, towering trees and the frequent dog-on-a-leash.
Main Street feels very “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And what’s that I see, over the head of the Confederate soldier statue? Why, it’s our old friend’s place, Walton’s Five and Dime.
The Wal-Mart Visitor Center occupies Walton’s Five and Dime, the variety store that the young Oklahoma entrepreneur, Sam Walton, established in 1950. The attraction, which includes a gift shop and a soda fountain, escorts visitors through the decades of Wal-Mart history, stopping on specific years of record: 1962, Sam opens the first Wal-Mart in Rogers, Ark.; 1975, he visits a South Korean tennis ball factory, which inspires the company cheer (a video captures the squiggly performance); 1980, the company reaches a billion dollars in annual sales; and 1992, may he rest in peace.
Many of the displays, such as the piece-by-furniture-piece reassembly of the boss’s office, softens the man whom many blame for the demise of small businesses. According to remembrances from his assistant, he was absentminded and often misplaced his unfashionable glasses and briefcases (she carried backups for him). The billionaire drove a 1979 Ford pickup truck. He named a brand of dog food after his beloved English setter, Ol’ Roy. He built a company on the humane notion of “saving people money so they can live better.”
“It’s too bad a store like Wal-Mart couldn’t coexist with smaller businesses,” a visitor noted to her husband. My head involuntarily bobbed in agreement.
The visitor center’s timeline currently ends in 2011, the year Wal-Mart expanded into Africa — and Alice opened her museum.
My mid-November visit to Crystal Bridges coincided with its second birthday. But the staff was still coasting on the last milestone: In August, the millionth guest walked through the glass doors.
“It put us on the map,” said Emily Ironside, who works in the membership department. “We are more than just Wal-Mart. We’re the Natural State, and now we want to be known as the Natural and Cultural State.”
According to a guide, the heiress chose Bentonville as the museum’s home for two main reasons: her personal connection to the land (as a child, she rode her pony by the creek) and the black hole of major institutions within a 300-mile radius (no offense, nearby Museum of Native American History). As an avid outdoorswoman, she treated the natural setting as if it were its own masterpiece, incorporating the woods and water into the overall design. For instance, the Crystal Spring-fed stream flows around the podlike buildings, forming pools that create the illusion of a floating mini-tropolis. The copper roofs resemble scarabs; the large glass windows capture the colorful pinwheels of the Ozark land and sky.
“Ooh, look at the water reflecting on the glass,” said a front desk employee. “It’s like fireworks.”
On a fall foraging tour, one of several guided offerings, Joanne led our little line of ducks along the half-mile Tulip Tree Trail, crouching down to point out such local vegetation as beauty berries and sweetbay magnolia. Atop a small incline, we stopped at a boulder with a number affixed to its rugged surface. Without the “4,” the rock was a rock — a hard resting place or a common object easy to overlook. But with the “4,” the Arkansas limestone and sandstone boulder performed a Duchampian trick. Behold Robert Tannen’s “Grains of Sand.”
In addition to Tannen’s art-rock series (15 in all), nearly 20 outdoor sculptures salt the 120 acres and 31 / 2 miles of trails, including Tom Otterness’s winsome hay people at the entrance to the museum and Leo Villareal’s Buckyball, an oversize hamster ball with flashing LED lights and wooden loungers for reclined raving.
About 425 works, which span the vast artistic period between 1675 and 2010, are displayed inside, with less than 20 percent culled from Alice’s personal collection. Many of the pieces are by Americans (big names include Norman Rockwell, Stuart Davis, Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent), but the genre is loose enough to include works by foreigners who have incorporated an American theme or style or were influenced by or influential to American art and artists. Perhaps if Monet had hung out in New York’s Central Park instead of Provence, he, too, would be represented.
The staff is very protective of the art. On the Collections Highlights tour, a guest who defied the 18-inch-buffer viewing rule received a stern chiding. A guard informed me that chewing gum was not allowed, and provided me with a piece of paper to make the offensive wad disappear. Soon after, another guard banished my pen, but not without handing me a replacement tool, a pencil.
The museum grounds stay open until sunset, which I spent inside James Turrell’s “The Way of Color,” one of two exhibits accessible after-hours. Changing lights illuminate the interior of the docked UFO-shape structure, altering the viewer’s perception of the sky peeking through a hole in the ceiling. When the yellow lights flickered on, I stared into a deep purple eye of sky. Red lights turned the heavens into the startling blue of a new day.
The Crystal Bridges Trail links the museum to the downtown and deposits pedestrians near the 21c Museum Hotel, another member of Bentonville’s culture club. The boutique hotel, which arrived in February, features an avant-garde contemporary art museum on its ground floor. Open 24/7, it caters to traditional museumgoers and insomniacs.
“We wanted to give the small downtown a boost and help it thrive in arts and culture,” said the front desk employee, “and support Crystal Bridges.”
The main exhibit changes every six months, but one collection is permanent: the chest-high green penguin sculptures that move despite their inability to fly, or even walk.
The whimsical pieces, created in all eco-seriousness by the Cracking Art Group, stare at diners in the Hive, the restaurant, and stand vigil outside guest-room doors. One night, I was alone in the elevator until I eyed . . . a penguin standing quietly in the corner.
In the morning, the elevator was clear, but I noticed three penguins roosting on the rooftop, with Bentonville spread before them. Considering the surroundings, they fit in perfectly.