Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art: Bentonville, AR
Unexpected. Breathtaking. Expansive. Inspirational.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen art and architecture meld quite as beautifully as they do at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. What’s more surprising is that this gem is found not in a major metropolitan area, but instead in a small town in northwest Arkansas.
If you’ve heard of Bentonville, it’s likely due to its role as the birthplace of Walmart. It’s where Sam Walton opened his first store. To this day, the town is home to the executive offices of this multinational corporation. Sam’s daughter Alice brought a new piece of the Walmart legacy to Bentonville with the opening of her brainchild, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
When we first visited Crystal Bridges a couple of years ago, I wasn’t expecting much more than a nice museum that was worth seeing but wasn’t likely to inspire a return trip. To say I was blown away would be an understatement.
Crystal Bridges Architecture
When you arrive at Crystal Bridges, you’ll likely park in an outer parking lot without catching a view of the museum itself. Several paths through the wooded lot make for a nice stroll to the museum. You’ll see your first piece of art before you even reach the entrance of the museum, a stainless-steel tree created by artist Roxy Paine.
From this level, visitors enter an elevator to be taken to the actual entrance. The glass-enclosed elevators give you your first peak of the stunning architecture of Crystal Bridges. The museum slowly reveals itself to you.
Crystal Bridges is a perfect conjuncture of glass, concrete, wood, and steel, each element beautifully balanced with another. The hardscape of the museum contrasts the natural surroundings, and yet, in some ways it seems to be a part of them. The museum is surrounded by a forest and small creek, part of which creates a pond that surrounds the museum, offering a mirror to reflect the architecture.
When visitors exit the elevator on the main level, they enter the grey concrete lobby, which contrasts the warmth of the curved-wood ceiling of the atrium. This light, airy room seems to float above the reflecting ponds. If you dine in Eleven, the restaurant housed here, you might find it hard to look at the people you are dining with because you keep sneaking peeks out the windows.
Around each turn, the architecture of the museum creates art in and of itself, without any need to look at the paintings on the walls.
Crystal Bridges Art
Personally, one of the things I love most about this museum is the arrangement of the art. Visitors move from room to room in a mostly-linear fashion. You start with early American art and move to modern times. The museum truly tells the story of American art. It showcases a variety of styles and themes.
Many major artists and artworks are featured. Despite its location, this is not a small, regional museum. It features a top-class collection. Warhol, O’Keefe, Lichtenstein, and Calder are just a few of the masters represented here. Contemporary artists, less familiar to us, are also featured, allowing us to see what is going on in the artwork today.
In addition to the main collection, traveling exhibits come and go. I recently made two visits to Crystal Bridges to see the State of the Art exhibit, which showcased contemporary art. I first visited as part of a weekend getaway with some friends, and then I realized my children needed to see this exhibit.
Art museums can be solemn, quiet places. Crystal Bridges during the State of the Art exhibit was quite the opposite. It was full of color, noise, and FUN. We were challenged, amused, amazed, and confused by the contemporary art. It definitely made us talk about that essential question: What is art?
If you’ve never taken your children to an art museum, this is a perfect first choice. I have found it to be less stuffy than other art museums I’ve visited, and I think kids naturally enjoy this bright, cheery museum. There are several pieces in the permanent collection that will interest children.
Crystal Bridges Outdoors
After exploring the museum, it is essential for visitors to explore the museum grounds. Many more pieces of art can be found along the walking trail. Here’s an overview of the grounds:
There are lots of great photo opportunities along these outside trails.
Up a trail from the museum sits the Bucky Ball. At night, this entire structure puts on a light show, with viewing benches provided.
The museum trails connect to Bentonville’s larger trail system, making it possible to walk from the museum to downtown. There’s a lot to explore in the town of Bentonville, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Tips for Visiting Crystal Bridges
- Entrance to the museum is FREE thanks to Walmart (that should make you feel better about all the money you spend there).
- You may need to pay for tickets to traveling exhibits. A list of current and upcoming exhibits can be found here.
- Consider bringing a picnic. There are many great places to sit and eat (outside of the museum, of course).
- The restaurant inside the museum is also top class, offering modern American fare. It may be pricy for families, but the food is definitely worth the cost. You can check out the lunch menu here.
- A Frank Lloyd Wright house was brought to the grounds and opened in 2016. Advanced tickets are free, but you must reserve a time slot to enter the house, and these slots do fill up. Be sure to do the guided tour or audio tour.
- Check in at guest services to find out whether classes or tours are available. There are many opportunities to learn more about the art and to participate in making some of your own.
- Children’s guidebooks with activities are available.
- My own children love that the WIFI is blazing fast! Of course, this should not be a top priority when visiting the museum, but if your kids have been cooped up in a car or stuck in a campground with no WiFi, take a break and let them get their digital connection.
We are lucky to live close enough to the museum to visit again and again. Even if you aren’t, you should go out of your way at least once to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
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