Art Comes to Bentonville

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

When you think of a great city with great museums, you are likely to think of a city like London with its British Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Modern, or Paris with its Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, and Centre Georges Pompidou. Or you may think of New York with its Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, and Guggenheim. It is unlikely that you would think of a small city in a southern state in the United States as the site of a great museum. Maybe, it is unfair to compare Bentonville to a great city like London, Paris, or New York. Yet, there is something to be said about this small city in the northwest region of Arkansas and its art museum, Crystal Bridges.

Bentonville, though its population is growing, is still a small city, with the population of about 40,000. Unless you are from Arkansas, or from one of its neighboring states, you may not recognize the name of Bentonville until you are told about the city’s connection with Sam Walton (1918-92) and his Walmart. With stores scattered all over the United States and the world, Walmart is now the world’s largest retail chain. But Sam Walton had a humble beginning in Bentonville with a small retail store, which still stands in Bentonville’s Town Square, next to the museum whose exhibits trace Sam Walton’s life and his accomplishments.

With the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum in November 2011, Bentonville is now becoming widely known as one of the places to visit among art lovers. With generous funding provided by Sam Walton’s daughter Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges is built in the lush Ozark forests, with its buildings designed by Moshe Safdie, who is known for his innovative designs such as the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. Designed as the covered bridges over the creek-fed pond, Crystal Bridges blends nicely into the surrounding landscape.

As its full name, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, suggests, Crystal Bridges has an impressive collection of American art, from the colonial era to the present. Much of it comes from Alice Walton’s personal collection—estimated to be worth over $2 billion—prior to the museum’s opening. Just looking at the list of artists represented— Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Edward Hopper (1887-1967), Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1998), Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Jackson Pollack (1912-56), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), Andy Warhol (1928-87) and others—you will be convinced that Crystal Bridges is one of the best museums in the United States, or in the world for that matter, when it comes to displaying the works by American artists.

One other artist whose name is worth mentioning among the artists whose works are displayed at Crystal Bridges is Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Benton, although his last name suggests that he might be from Bentonville, is actually from Neosho, a small town in the southwest region of Missouri, not far from the border with Arkansas. Known for his majestic mural, America Today, which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Benton is well represented at Crystal Bridges with such works as Ploughing It Under, Tobacco Sorters, and Study for the Slow Train through Arkansas. These works show that Benton was well familiar with the life and scenery in this part of Arkansas. In fact, Deep South, one of the mural panels in America Today, marvelously captures the people and the landscapes he witnessed while traveling south from Appalachia to New Orleans.

What makes a visit to Crystal Bridges such a delightful experience is the way it is built as a park with nature trails with names such as Dogwood Trail, Orchard Trail, and Tulip Tree Trail. Along the trail named Art Trail, you will find sculptures such as Nancy Schon’s Tortoise and Hare, Dan Ostermiller’s Shore Lunch, and Andre Harvey’s Stella, all delightful and expressive depictions of animals. These and other sculptures built on the trails offer visitors to Crystal Bridges a whole new experience about “art and nature”, with artistic creations blending harmoniously into the natural environment.

There is another sculpture along Art Trail that is definitely worth visiting. This is James Turrell’s The Way of Color, which was installed at the current location in 2009. Calling himself as a “sculptor of light”, James Turrell is known for his Skyscapes. A Skyscape is an enclosed space created within a structure usually made of stone and concrete with an aperture in the roof, which is rectangular-shaped like Open Sky (2004) at Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan, or round-shaped like The Way of Color at Crystal Bridges. But the shape of an aperture is immaterial, as the whole point about a Skyscape is the opportunity it provides to experience light as it is. “Light is not something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation,” says James Turrell, as quoted in a companion volume to JAMES TURRELL: A RETROSPECTIVE, held at Los Angels County Museum of Art from May 2013 through April 2014. As you look up the sky through an aperture of a Skyscape, you see light filtering through it sometimes as waves but other times as tiny particles, reminding you of the dual nature of light as discovered by modern physicists. Light is also the source of colors as it interacts with our perception in different contexts, which The Way of Color demonstrates with programmed LED light displays of changing colors projected on the walls and the ceiling at dawn and dusk.

It is not just visual art that Bentonville offers. If your preference is for culinary art, there is an interesting restaurant called Sushi House, a widely popular restaurant that requires you to stand in a long line on weekends. Here you have a chance to taste a specialty of the house: “deep fried sushi”. Purists may be repelled at the idea of deep frying sushi, which would certainly kill off the taste of vinegar that is part and parcel of good sushi. But this is Arkansas, a region that boasts deep fried catfish among its favorite dishes. Indeed, you can hardly blame Arkansans for inventing “deep fried sushi”, considering that Japanese have invented such adaptations of imported food as “rice burger” and “anpan (bread with red bean pastes)”.

Having asked the usual question, “Is this art?” at some of the works exhibited at Crystal Bridges Museum—and at 21c Museum Hotel nearby, a boutique hotel which also serves as a contemporary art museum—you have every right to ask the question, “Is this sushi?” at some of the dishes offered at Sushi House. If nothing else, the very opportunity Bentonville offers you to ask these questions makes this small city in rural Arkansas an interesting place to visit. To be sure, Bentonville still has a long way to go before it can be called a great city with great museums, but it is already a charming city with a marvelous museum.