BENTONVILLE, Ark. • The greeters are a dead giveaway — the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was built by Wal-Mart money. Friendly and helpful, the greeters who welcome visitors to America's most important new museum are quick to answer questions, suggest a free tour or offer directions to the walking paths. But they serve a symbolic role too, signaling that everyone is welcome here.
That message came through loud and clear during our recent visit. On a sunny, warm Sunday in April, the parking lot was packed with cars from Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and beyond. Inside, locals and tourists, children and grandparents, art students and ladies who lunch all marveled at iconic works of American art — "Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn" from 19th-century landscape artist Thomas Moran, "Rosie the Riveter" by beloved illustrator Norman Rockwell and "Dolly Parton" by superstar pop artist Andy Warhol.
"No way," exclaimed a small boy upon realizing that artist Devorah Sperber re-created Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" by connecting 20,000 spools of colored thread.
"How did she do that?" echoed his graying grandfather in the same tone of childlike wonder.
The same could be asked of Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress and art collector who founded Crystal Bridges. The short answer, of course, is money — lots of it. Walton is the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton; her fortune is estimated at some $23 billion. To fill her sprawling museum, Walton went on a buying spree in the mid-2000s, snatching up prized pieces from museums and university collections. Some art world insiders groused, appalled that these works would be banished to the Ozark hills.
But Walton built a home as amazing as any work within the museum. Designed by Israeli-born Boston architect Moshe Safdie, the museum's wings — a set of curved arms constructed from local materials — hug two spring-fed ponds. The building is surrounded by 120 acres of dogwood trees, forests, walking and bike trails and sculpture. The museum opened in November and has emerged as a must-see destination for art lovers.
I had wanted to make the trip since the museum's debut but balked at the 300-mile trip. After all, what else does Bentonville have to offer? Little in the way, of large attractions or lodging but a 21c Museum Hotels, which operates two luxury "art hotels" will open its third location in Bentonville next year. Until then, it's budget lodging and chain restaurants. Our solution: stay at nearby Eureka Springs, located 40 miles east of Bentonville.
Depending on whom you ask, some 200 to 400 of Eureka Springs' 2,000 residents are working artists. To be sure, some of them are awful. We saw plenty of starving-artist landscapes and kitschy knick-knacks. But we also met talented jewelers, painters, a fashion designer and a gifted woodworker who carves exquisite bowls from infested trees. Together with the city's Southern architecture, New Orleans vibe and good restaurants, Eureka Springs made a perfect home base for our weekend arty Arkansas adventure.
EUREKA SPRINGS: MADE BY HAND
Despite Eureka Springs' bounty of artists, friends discouraged Marsha Havens from exclusively selling local art at her shop, Eureka Thyme.
"They said, 'Oh, artists aren't reliable. They won't bring you enough product,'" recalled Havens. "I said, 'What product? I don't think of it as product; I think of it as art, and I'll take what they bring me.'"
Today, Havens represents 106 artists. They bring her delicate tea cups, woven scarves, whimsical paintings, soy candles and contemporary sculpture. Havens says the arrival of Crystal Bridges has reinforced the idea, both among artists and customers, that works made by hand have a unique value.
"They go there, then they come in here and see something made by a real person with love," said Havens. "You can tell it's exciting for them to make that connection and talk to a working artist."
We were wowed by one artist in particular, woodworker Les Brandt who creates bowls, plates and sculptures from trees that have been infested or have fallen during storms. Various funguses and bugs lend the wood streaks of color and unusual patterns. Each work comes with a short story that explains how Brandt created the work. Brandt never buys wood; most of it comes from his property in nearby Huntsville.
"I don't start with a set idea of what I want to do," explained Brandt, who often visits the shop on weekends to talk to potential buyers. "Rather I find the beauty in the wood and let it speak for itself."
Eureka Thyme sits at the crossroads of the imminently walkable Eureka Springs. No car is required once you arrive, but walking shoes are a must. The town is built into the Ozark bluffs, and long flights of stairs connect the sloping streets. Basin Park offers visitors a place to rest while enjoying ice cream or live music.
We walked in and out of souvenir shops selling nuts, T-shirts and, our favorite, resin armadillo wine holders. But our favorite destinations were owned and operated by artists.
At Regalia, we met fashion designer and owner Mark Hughes who makes comfortable, simple linen clothes for mature women. I'm not (quite) at that age, but I coveted Hughes' adorable A-line skirts and flirty sundresses constructed from vintage fabrics he found on eBay.
Next we stopped into Wilson & Wilson Folk Ark, where owner Blakeley Wilson paints her detailed scenes of farmhouses and country life right next to the cash register. Her cows, streetscapes and barns have this intriguing, elongated character — think Mary Engelbreit meets Amedeo Modigliani.
Across the street is Iris at the Basin Park, run by passionate arts advocate Iris Feutz. Her store represents some 250 American artists including Lyla Allison, a jewelry designer who also works weekends at the shop.
"I was born and raised here and have never been happy anywhere else," said Allison. "The environment here is so creative it just makes you want to learn new things. People think that they could never pick up a torch, but they come for a workshop and learn a new craft. It's more than taking home a souvenir."
WHERE THE MISFITS FIT
May could be the best time to visit Eureka Springs. The May Festival of the Arts features the ARTrageous Parade, gallery strolls, a Mustang Car Show, a Miata gathering and a blues festival. For a complete list of daily events visit eurekasprings.org.
Expect the city to be packed with the town's two key demographics — leather-clad bikers and gays and lesbians. If that seems like an odd mix, remember Eureka Springs calls itself "the place where the misfits fit."
The folks here enjoy a good party as the packed patio bars and restaurants attest. During our stay, we hit three of the town's favorite restaurants: beloved breakfast and lunch destination Mud Street Café; the casual Local Flavor Café; and the fancier Grand Taverne Restaurant. Mud Street menu features grits, omelets and sandwiches. My recommendation — skip them all and go straight for the homemade pie. Local Flavor is operated by chef and sixth-generation native Britt Evans and features pastas, steaks, seafood, housemade desserts and cocktails with a Southern flair. On this night, women sipped peach sangria and noshed on crab cakes. I opted for the salmon with raspberry barbecue sauce; my husband picked the grilled fillet. Both were perfectly prepared. For dessert, I wanted the pecan pie with pecan shortbread crust, but our waitress recommended we try the signature bread pudding with bourbon cream sauce. Good call. Reservations are a must. If you don't mind the vroom, vroom of motorcycles, request the patio.
The Grand Taverne, with its lace and muted floral wallpaper, is the sort of place my grandmother would have called too grandmother-y. But the food is awesome, and the house martinis pack a punch. I ordered the Arkansas "hawg" chop, an enormous pan-roasted, sage-rubbed cut from a local farm served with calvados sauce and dauphinois potato. I saved room for an old-school Brandy Alexander, one of the many classic dessert cocktails on the menu. Grandmother would have ordered two.
For a nightcap, hit the Eureka Stone House, a hipsters haven located in an 1800s stone building. We sat on the quiet outdoor terrace, drank craft beer and speculated on the seemingly direct correlation between the size of man's beer gut and his motorcycle.
On Sunday, we took the scenic one-hour drive to Bentonville. The rolling hills of Arkansas are beautiful in the spring, and the drive put us in the perfect state of mind to experience the museum, which effortlessly marries art and nature.
But first we stopped by Thorncrown Chapel, built by renowned Arkansas architect Fay Jones. Architect Safdie has called Jones an inspiration, and no work better demonstrates Jones' reverence for the region's natural beauty than Thorncrown Chapel. The church stretches 48 feet tall and is built from 6,000 square feet of glass. The ceiling is all sky; the walls all woods. The church is open daily; visitors are welcome to join 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday services.
At Crystal Bridges, after chatting with the aforementioned greeters, we toured the museum's special exhibit (now closed) of contemporary art and permanent collection of colonial art, landscape painting, American impressionism, modern and contemporary art. The galleries are connected by glass vestibules that offer views of the museum's spring-fed ponds and an opportunity to consider what they just experienced before moving on to the next period. The museum's many reading lounges, appointed with comfortable, modern furniture and stacks of art books, also give visitors a chance to relax and reflect.
Some art lovers surely will gripe about the composition of the collection. Photography is almost entirely ignored; so is America's tradition of great folk art. The contemporary gallery includes the requisite Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein, but the most exciting and surprising works are new pieces by African-American artists. Kara Walker's tapestry, "A Warm Summer Evening in 1863" (2008), features a large silhouette of a lynched woman superimposed upon a mob scene of angry New Yorkers burning down a black orphanage. Kerry James Marshall's painting "Our Town" (1995) depicts two black children playing on a suburban street that appears both idyllic and menacing.
Outside, the museum offers some 3.5 miles of trails. Some are paved and feature art; others simply wind through the woods. Featured works include a James Turrell observatory, "Lowell's Ocean" by Mark di Suvero, and, our favorite "Stella," a bronze pig by André Harvey.
After a day of walking, we replenished ourselves at Eleven, Crystal Bridges' expansive dining hall. Flanked with floor-to-ceiling windows and surrounded by water, Eleven again reinforces the museum's connection to its surroundings. There is no table service, rather folks stand in line and chose among the brief but yummy menu. The most expensive dish, shrimp and grits, costs $12. Kids can order PB&J or grilled cheese. My meal, a hearty bowl of brown beans and ham topped with chive oil and served with Ozark cornbread, may have been the best meal in Arkansas, and it came in at $5. Sam Walton would approve.
IF YOU GO
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art • Open daily except Tuesday at Museum Way, Bentonville, Ark.; free; crystalbridges.org
May Festival of the Arts • Runs daily in May; Eureka Springs; free; eurekasprings.org
Artosphere • Artosphere features concerts on the Crystal Bridges trails, free family show at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, chamber music at Thorncrown Chapel and classical music at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville as well as dance, theater, lectures and family events; May-June; prices vary; artospherefestival.org