NORMAN — The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., is celebrating its one-year anniversary through November.
A recent trip there found the 245 mile drive from Norman to be well worth the effort. It’s a stunning complex of pavilions surrounded by native forest. Paths carved into the wilderness are dotted along their lengths with a dozen steel and bronze sculptures including ones by Robert Indiana and Mark di Suvero.
Between the structures where the main collection is housed are mini-lakes fed by natural spring water.
The Museum’s conception began years ago with Alice Walton who is among the wealthiest people in the world. She marshaled backing from her family’s foundation whose financial strength comes from the Walmart retail empire. Although widely hailed internationally after opening as a marvel in the Ozarks, the process for amassing the collection was not without controversy.
A 2005 New York Times headline tellingly reads, “A Determined Heiress Plots an Art Collection.” Not surprisingly, Ms. Walton throwing her money around wasn’t looked on kindly in all circles.
Litigation was even involved between Crystal Bridges and Fisk University over a group of paintings that artist Georgia O’Keefe bequeathed to the historically African-American institution in 1949.
Fisk was in dire financial straits and Walton had the bucks to spend which could be viewed either as a rescue or crass opportunism.
A compromise ownership of the art was ultimately arrived at. Endowments from the Walton clan for Crystal Bridges have been close to a billion dollars. The collection itself is priceless both in terms of artistic appeal and American historical significance.
Perhaps most important to the visitor such as myself is that admission to the museum is free. It’s open every day except Tuesdays, Christmas and Thanksgiving.
What Alice Walton did was to accumulate among the finest collections of art in the world. This fact is reflected in Crystal Bridges’ collaboration agreements with the National Gallery of Art, Musee du Louvre in Paris and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. All eras of American art from Colonial to Modern are displayed in chronological order. Because the museum is enormous, the works are not crowded together, making them a pleasure to view even when a lot of other visitors are around. Both natural and artificial light are used effectively. The museum was designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie and New York engineer Buro Happold.
Extensive use of glass walls, brushed stainless steel, hardwood or tile floors and bare concrete was used throughout. Curved wooden ribs interspersed with glass panels comprise the pavilion ceilings.
My partiality for American art is in works made after 1900. Crystal Bridges provided one goose-bump inducing thrill after another. “Dolly Parton” by Andy Warhol is there in all her platinum blond and lavender mascara glory.
An unmistakable Louise Nevelson assemblage with its black wood maze of geometric shapes is as big as a Buick’s roof.
Thomas Hart Benton’s steel mill canvas could be a descent into Hades and I would swear that painting used to be at Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art.
Norman Rockwell’s inspiring and comforting Rosie the Riveter is a great big picture deserving of the wall all to itself. The image was originally a 1943 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover.
Seeing it up close revealed a detail I’d never noticed before, Rosie’s left penny loafer is planted symbolically on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. These are just a few of my favorites from among the over 400 drawings, sculptures and paintings from the permanent collection. Periodic temporary exhibits are always on display, too.
The attractive museum restaurant is called Eleven and overlooks the lakes on both sides of its broad expanse. Everything on the menu was under ten clams.
The Museum Store is a gift shop similar to those found in any major art museum with cleverly designed inexpensive knick knacks and more pricey genuine art.
It was a beastly hot 100-plus degree day when we visited so the outdoor sculpture trails were left for a return excursion. And there will be another trip back to one of the globe’s premier art museums.