Ozark Outdoors

Crystal Bridges brings America’s art to Ozarks

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Editor of GREENE Magazine

Alice Walton remembers riding – sometimes chasing – her brothers on horseback, up a tight little ravine named Crystal Spring outside Bentonville, Ark. Not likely that she ever imagined then that today there would be a museum on that familiar 120 acres, or that she would be its primary benefactor. Or that she would have a fortune estimated at $23 billion, give or take.

And yet, here we are at the culmination of the ultimate one-tank trip, and a one-stop destination if the visitor is wise, because there is too much to see even in an entire day at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a 120,000-square foot design funded by the youngest daughter of a familiar name in the Ozarks, the late Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.

Construction is said to have cost in the range of $150 million, plus a $1.5 billion endowment from the Walmart Foundation. And more is pledged by a bluechip list, including Tyson and others in the extended Walton family.

Here is truly something breath-taking to be contemplated again and again.

Crystal Bridges Museum

This ‘One-Tank Trip’ has only one stop, but it will surely make you want to return

More than 2,000 art "objects" are already on location, though only about 500 are available for viewing at any one time. And that doesn’t include traveling exhibits, such as "American Chronicles, the Art of Norman Rockwell."

If you’ve ever wanted to come truly close to stepping back in time to meet some of our nation’s greatest figures, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art comes close.

In it you will find a stunning collection of American art, ranging from Gilbert Stewart’s portrait of George Washington to "Kindred Spirits" by Asher Brown Durand, purchased from the New York Public Library after no small uproar for $35 million. Actually, there are three portraits of Washington at different stages of his life. Together, they almost seem to bring him back into our own realm, so revealing are the eyes of the first president, known to most of us only distantly through history, legend and myth.

Entrance to Crystal Bridges Museum

Crystal Bridges Museum entrance from 600 Museum Way in Bentonville, Ark. Above is a view of the span on Crystal Spring

An ongoing snit of eastern snobbery often clouds the discussion of how such a magnificent collection could be tucked away in the Ozarks, away from the spoiled critics of the East. It came the old-fashioned way, old chums, through American enterprise of an original Ben Franklin variety store.

The museum, designed by Moshe Safdie, is itself an integration of land, water and organic design. The buildings are truly bridges over the spring that feeds the pool that is the focal point of a courtyard reminiscent of the outdoor lifestyle around which our Ozarks culture is framed.

The trails and grounds of Crystal Bridges are as much a part of the museum experience as the inside. More than 3.5 miles of trails providing visitors with a hiking spirit access to the beautiful Ozark landscape, most of it easily accessible.

George WashingtonHighlights include the historic Crystal Spring, for which the Museum is named, and several outdoor sculptures along the Art Trail. Designed to spark the imagination, the trails offer connections to the land and its history, and Arkansas plant life.

Patios and plenty of comfortable outdoor furniture make it easy to recharge and enjoy the seasons that make the museum’s surroundings as well as design something to appreciate and discuss with friends.

Already more than half a million visitors have enjoyed what might be described as 21st Century southern hospitality with iPods and tour apps; guides and docents, along with just a subtle of security, all in place to answer questions as well as remind the uncouth that a bit of reverence is in order. With so many historic figures to entertain us, this seems like a perfect cross-platform classroom for students of a mind to realize they are coming as close to a step back in time as any of us could hope to for now. There are majestic and moving photographic collections of frenetic native tribes hanging on to our frontiers, their homelands. Photographs are permitted, but not with flash, but lighting is easily sufficient for digital photography, and high-resolution digital copies are available for downloading at CrystalBridges.org. If you want to buy, there is a well-stocked Museum Gift Shop, and Eleven is tasty for lunch if you don’t mind a wait in line. Service is excellent. Dinner is a better treat.

KIndred SpiritsIf you’re thinking of visiting, or planning your return, "American Chronicles, the Art of Norman Rockwell" opens March 9 and continues through May 27th. There is a $12 charge for adults, but membership ($75 for families; $55 for an individual; $35 for students; 10 percent off for educators and seniors) has its privileges, so that most special exhibitions are free to members, along with other amenities and opportunities.

The Rockwell exhibit includes 50 original paintings and 323 Saturday Evening Post covers that document Rockwell’s perspective on American life. Materials show fascinating insight as to just how Rockwell worked from sketches, photographs, color studies, and detailed drawings to the finished painting. Timed, reserved tickets will keep visitors moving.

Truthfully, it is difficult to do more here than entice Ozarkers to perhaps beat the rush of tourism and head to Crystal Bridges during another mild Ozarks winter. You will surely not be sorry, and more likely will visit again and again. After all, chances are you helped pay for it.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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